ROME Signs of a possible truce between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and rebels within his coalition emerged on Thursday after the conservative leader praised the "constructive approach" of some dissidents.
Berlusconi's comments were regarded as an olive branch by supporters of Gianfranco Fini, the lower house speaker who dramatically split from his long-time ally last month and has since set up a breakaway group in parliament.
The rupture has raised the prospect of early elections, as Berlusconi no longer has a guaranteed majority, unless the two camps can patch up.
Berlusconi said on Wednesday that some members of Fini's new group had shown a constructive approach and if that continued "it will be certainly possible to restore unity, the lack of which could only lead to painful and definitive choices."
Berlusconi's People of Freedom party spokesman, Daniele Capezzone, said on Thursday that the prime minister's comments were a "last-chance offer to the more reasonable members" in Fini's camp.
One of Fini's most loyal lieutenants, Italo Bocchino, replied that his group was ready to work with the government but demanded the end of what he called a campaign against Fini by media close to Berlusconi.
Both sides appeared to strike a more conciliatory note, in stark contrast with the increasingly acrimonious exchanges of the past few weeks.
Some newspaper commentators however said Berlusconi's tactic was to try to split his rivals, and lure at least some of the dissidents back to his camp.
The real test of any thaw between the two sides will likely come next month, when Berlusconi plans to call a confidence vote on a four-point platform. His allies have said he will resign if he does not get enough parliamentary backing.
Thursday's headline in Il Giornale, a paper owned by Berlusconi's brother which has led the charge against Fini, was uncompromising: "Fini on the way out. Abandoned by everybody."
Il Giornale has started a petition demanding Fini's resignation as lower house speaker over an allegedly dubious real estate deal involving a Monte Carlo flat bequeathed to his former party.
Fini, who has angered Berlusconi's supporters by hammering away at the themes of legality and morality in recent months, has denied any wrongdoing.
If a government resigns, it is up to the president to dissolve parliament and call new elections. But the constitution requires him first to try to identify a new majority that could support an interim government until elections due in 2013.
Berlusconi is said to favor snap polls that most commentators say he would likely win. His main coalition partner, the Northern League, has also said the best option is to go back to the ballot box as soon as possible.