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Italy's Berlusconi digs in heels despite sex probe

ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accused magistrates on Saturday of illegally spying on him as he refused to appear before prosecutors who allege that he had sex with an under-age prostitute.

As the opposition urged him to resign over the latest sex scandal, Berlusconi said he had no intention of stepping down, keeping up his offensive against magistrates he says are biased and bent on trying to oust him from power.

“I am not running away and I am not resigning,” Berlusconi said in a phone call to a meeting of his People of Freedom party. “I am defending myself and reacting to what is truly an attempt to subvert the will of voters,” he said.

Milan prosecutors allege that Berlusconi paid for sex with a “significant” number of prostitutes, including a 17-year-old nightclub dancer, at parties in his villa near Milan.

Having sex with a prostitute under the age of 18 is an offence in Italy. Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing.

Leaked transcripts of phone conversations between more than 20 women who attended the so-called “bunga bunga” sex parties at Berlusconi’s residence have been splashed on Italian newspapers for days, piling pressure on the premier.

But Berlusconi said the wiretaps were part of an illegal political, judicial and media campaign to destroy him, defending his right to privacy and calling the accusations “ridiculous.”

“Since the beginning of 2010 all the guests that came to my house in Arcore have been subject to continued phone tapping ... Is it normal in a democracy that the prime minister can be subject to this type of controls, to this spying?” he asked, to a chorus of “No” by party members.

LEGAL BATTLE

The magistrates had summoned the 74-year-old billionaire, who denies any wrongdoing, for questioning and gave him a choice of three days between Friday and Sunday.

But the premier’s lawyers sent a statement to the prosecutors on Friday contending that they do not have the right to preside over the case and informing them Berlusconi would not attend. The lawyers say that the case should be handled instead by a special court for ministers.

Berlusconi has ridden out a string of sex scandals since returning to power in 2008, but the latest allegations come at a particularly difficult time for him.

He narrowly survived a confidence vote in December after breaking up with a key former ally and lost automatic immunity from prosecution following a top court ruling last week.

Opposition parties say the scale of the allegations has made Berlusconi’s position untenable, while Vatican officials and media have said politicians should show morality.

“If we must have a government that is concerned about bunga bunga rather than the problems of Italians, then early elections are the solution,” said Pierferdinando Casini, a Catholic centrist.

However, Berlusconi’s allies, including the powerful Northern League coalition partner, are standing by him and surveys show mixed views about the scandal’s political fallout.

An IPSOS opinion poll this week showed that 79 percent of Italians thought Berlusconi should explain himself before the prosecutors, and 54 percent did not believe that Berlusconi was being persecuted by the judiciary.

However, 50 percent of those interviewed did not think the probe would affect his government or weaken him, and 42 percent said he would see out his term, which ends in 2013.

Editing by Jason Neely

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