June 21, 2009 / 7:33 PM / 9 years ago

Berlusconi defiant as pressure grows over scandal

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Sunday brushed off pressure over allegations female escorts were paid to attend his parties and sought to focus on his government’s plans for the next year.

Already under fire over his friendship with an 18-year-old that prompted his wife to seek divorce, Berlusconi now faces questions from the influential Catholic establishment and the opposition as details of his private life emerge daily.

The latest uproar came after a 23-year old bridal model told major Italian dailies this weekend she had accompanied a female escort to Berlusconi’s private Rome residence for dinner, where the prime minister presented her with rings and necklaces designed by him.

The model said she was later paid 1,000 euros to attend a party at Berlusconi’s villa in Sardinia by a local businessman being investigated by magistrates on suspicion of corruption.

She said she recounted the events to investigators as well. Her account appeared to corroborate comments made by the female escort last week.

The entrepreneur has denied paying women to attend parties and apologised for “involuntarily damaging” Berlusconi.

Berlusconi last week called the accusations “false trash” meant to taint his image ahead of the July G8 summit hosted by Italy and said the center-left opposition could not topple him.

He was equally defiant on Sunday as the pressure mounted.

“Why would I not hang in there?” Berlusconi asked after voting in provincial election run-offs when supporters yelled at him to “hang in there”.

“We will soon have a meeting with all the ministers in which we will lay down the government’s program for the coming year and it will be an absolutely concrete program.”

DENY WITH FACTS

But that has failed to quell the growing furor surrounding Berlusconi, who dominates Italy’s political landscape and ranks high in opinion polls despite the scandals and a recession.

Avvenire, the newspaper of the influential Italian Bishops Conference, in a Friday editorial questioned Berlusconi’s defense so far and urged him to clear up the facts quickly.

“There is the need to arrive as soon as possible to a clarification that addresses the most urgent questions, which don’t come solely from political adversaries but also from part of the public not opposed to the premier,” Avvenire wrote.

One Italian archbishop, Carlo Ghidelli, told Corriere della Sera newspaper on Sunday that Berlusconi must “deny the accusations with facts, not just words”.

Left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica, which has led the attack against Berlusconi, quoted the popular Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana’s director as saying he had received many angry letters from readers over the matter.

Powerful businessman Tarak Ben Ammar, however, had a different suggestion for the premier: he told the Corriere della Sera it may be time for a new first lady, much like French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s marriage to model Carla Bruni.

“Having a woman by his side would be decisive for a man who is so sensitive to beauty, elegance and talent,” Ben Ammar said.

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