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Berlusconi under pressure as "Ruby" scandal widens
ROME (Reuters) - Opposition lawmakers demanded that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi resign after a paper on Saturday published what it said were details of him asking police to free a 17-year-old Moroccan girl detained for theft.
The saga of the girl, a dancer who goes by the stage name "Ruby," and her ties to the 74-year-old center-right prime minister have exploded into the latest scandal over Berlusconi's private life.
Newspapers have been awash with details of parties she allegedly attended at the media tycoon's residence.
She has been quoted calling them "bunga-bunga" parties -- an apparent reference to a lewd joke that is taken to refer to some form of sexual activity -- and the term has already taken on a life of its own in popular gossip.
Berlusconi, who has weathered other scandals tied to parties with escorts and another teenage girl over the past year, says he helped Ruby when she was in trouble with police, but denies interfering with the justice system.
Berlusconi's approval ratings have been falling steadily to below 40 percent thanks to an austerity package, government infighting and corruption scandals.
But polls show his government remains comfortably ahead of the weak leftist opposition, and the main threat to his administration remains a bitter split with former ally Gianfranco Fini, whose support he needs in parliament.
PHONE CALL TO POLICE
The widely respected newspaper Corriere della Sera on Saturday published details of a phone conversation it said Berlusconi had with a Milan police chief when Ruby was detained for theft in May.
According to Corriere, Berlusconi urged him not to send Ruby to a shelter, saying: "We know this girl, but most of all I want to explain to you that she has been identified to us as a relative of Egyptian President (Hosni) Mubarak."
Berlusconi then promised to send a trusted aide -- a regional official who was also a former dental hygienist to the premier -- to take custody of the girl, the newspaper said. The aide has confirmed to newspapers that she picked the girl up at the police station at Berlusconi's request.
Berlusconi's allies dismissed the allegations of interference. Labour Minister Maurizio Sacconi suggested an "organized ferocity" lay behind the number of probes linked to the premier, in a bid to force him out of power.
Italy's left-wing opposition, which has stepped up its attacks against the premier over the scandal, said the latest reports showed it was time for Berlusconi to step down.
"The news coming out of Milan tell us something clear: Berlusconi cannot stay another minute in a public role that he has indecently betrayed," Pierluigi Bersani, the head of the leftist Democratic Party, said in a statement.
Leftist lawmaker Enrico Letta said Berlusconi's resignation was "unavoidable" if he had personally intervened with police.
"Berlusconi must resign," said Antonio Di Pietro, head of the Italy of Values party and a long-time foe of Berlusconi.
"If he does not want to do it for Italians, he should do it for himself, because he needs treatment before it's too late."
Already lambasted by the Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana for lacking "self-control," Berlusconi came in for a rebuke from the influential Italian bishops' newspaper Avvenire as well.
"Personal sobriety and decorous respect of the public office one represents is the minimum (duty)," the paper said in an editorial.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)
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