Italy riveted by saga of Berlusconi and teenager

Tue May 26, 2009 8:56am EDT
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By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) - The story of Silvio Berlusconi's friendship with an 18-year-old woman has transfixed Italy and forced the prime minister onto the defensive as he leads his party into European elections and prepares to host a G8 summit.

Italy's opposition, media and even the Church have been hammering him to clear up the nature of his relationship with Noemi Letizia, an aspiring model who wants to break into show business.

Opponents sense a rare chance to land a blow on Berlusconi, who dominates the political landscape and remains popular despite the impact of the global crisis -- Italy's economy shrank 1 percent in 2008, the worst contraction since 1975.

"A politician has a duty to respond and a duty to tell the truth," Dario Franceschini, head of the opposition Democratic Party which trails Berlusconi's conservatives by about 15 percentage points in polls, told a rally at the weekend.

Letizia, whose 18th birthday party Berlusconi attended in Naples last month, is at the center of a messy divorce suit by his wife Veronica Lario.

Berlusconi, accused by Lario of "frequenting minors," insists nothing improper happened between him and the teenager who refers to him as "papi" (Daddy).

He says the opposition is trying to make political hay of the story to discredit him ahead of the June 6-7 European elections and the July 8-10 G8 meeting when he will host world leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama.

But the saga has become so politically explosive that Berlusconi has vowed to clear his name with a formal address to parliament, something he rarely does.   Continued...

<p>Italy's outgoing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures at the opening of Letizia Moratti's mayoral electoral campaign in Milan May 7, 2006. REUTERS/Daniele La Monaca</p>