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Politics

Berlusconi laughs off U.S. critique on his partying

ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi defended himself on Monday against classified U.S. State Department cables which labeled him “feckless” and suggested his penchant for “partying hard” affected his ability to govern.

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a news conference in Naples November 26, 2010. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

The 74-year-old prime minister’s private life has been in the spotlight for weeks since a teenaged nightclub dancer known as Ruby reported being paid 7,000 euros ($9,200) after attending a party at his private residence near Milan earlier this year.

Berlusconi is “feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader” and his “frequent late nights and penchant for partying hard mean he does not get sufficient rest,” a U.S. diplomat says in comments published by whistle-blower WikiLeaks.

On a visit to Tripoli, the Italian prime minister dismissed the comments with a joke.

“Unfortunately, I have never in my life taken part in any ‘wild party’. They may be interesting,” he told reporters in comments broadcast by SkyTG24 television.

“Once a month, I give dinners in my houses because there are so many people who want to meet me,” he said.

“When people say, ‘How come you let in mobile telephones?’ I say everything which happens is so correct and dignified and elegant that anyone could film or photograph anything that happens in these dinners.”

Last year, an escort named Patrizia D’Addario said she had been paid to attend a party at Berlusconi’s Rome residence and later slept with him. She taped her some of the conversations during the party on her cellphone.

Berlusconi has laughed off the uproar caused by accounts of “bunga bunga” -- an expression referring to sexual activity which comes from the punchline of one of his favorite lewd jokes -- parties at his villa, saying of his taste for young women “it is better to like beautiful girls than to be gay.”

But he is facing growing political pressure following a bitter split in the ruling People of Freedom party and he faces a no confidence vote on December 14 which could bring down his struggling center-right government.

HURT TO IMAGE

Opinion polls show the stories of girls and parties have undermined his popularity among an electorate which appears to be losing its patience with the prime minister’s foibles in the face of mounting economic difficulties.

“These are all things which hurt the image of the country when they are spread around because someone might think they are true,” Berlusconi said on Monday.

The wider problems facing the government were underlined on bond markets as the premium that investors demand to hold Italian government bonds instead of German debt rose on Monday to its highest level since the euro was created.

Italy is emerging only slowly from its worst postwar recession and the government is facing a series of problems ranging from high youth unemployment to an unresolved scandal over waste management in the southern city of Naples.

While Italy, which has one of the highest public debts in Europe, has so far escaped the turmoil hitting countries such as Ireland, Greece or Portugal, financial markets are in jittery mood and nervous of signs of political instability.

As well as Ruby, a second young woman has come forward, appearing on television on Sunday to say she was paid to attend parties at Arcore, Berlusconi’s luxurious private villa near Milan, and his house at Villa Certosa in Sardinia.

The prime minister’s lawyer has denied the comments by the woman, Nadia Macri, and Berlusconi himself dismissed them as “incredible and unfounded” and suggested that other forces may be at work to try to discredit him.

“What could persuade a girl to declare she is a prostitute in front of the whole world, so that she can’t have a normal job or a normal husband and she can’t even work as a prostitute because no one would trust her anymore?” he said.

“So the question is, why do they do it?. Who would have paid them enough to do it?”

Editing by Louise Ireland

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