Berlusconi hits out at probe into links with teenager

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi slammed Saturday the opening of a court probe into his relationship with a teenage girl as one more plot against him by the country's judges.

"This new judicial machination which has been blown up by the media will not stop us or distract us from our commitment to change the country," he said in a statement.

The inquiry into the affair dubbed "Rubygate" by the Italian media was launched by prosecutors on Friday as Berlusconi was still reeling from a court ruling partially stripping him of political immunity.

It will consider whether Berlusconi had sexual relations with a girl named Ruby between February and May 2010, when she was still a minor, the public prosecutor's office said in a statement.

Berlusconi will also be investigated for allegedly abusing his position of power on a night in May when he told police in Milan to free Ruby after she had been picked up for an alleged theft.

The 72-year-old media mogul, a notorious womaniser, admits that he is "no saint" but has said he never paid for sex. Both he and Moroccan-born Ruby, a disco dancer, whose real name is Karima El Mahroug, have denied having sexual relations.

Berlusconi condemned Saturday "an nth hypothesis constructed specifically to stain my reputation and my institutional role in the illusory aim of eliminating me from the political stage".

He warned that "the mud will rebound on those who use the judiciary as a political weapon".

Berlusconi's lawyers Piero Longo and Niccolo Ghedini rejected the allegations Friday, calling the "new inquiry so absurd and unfounded that it would not even deserve a comment".

"The speculations have already been widely denied by the witnesses and those directly involved," they said in a statement.

The allegations are "a very serious interference in the private life of the head of government, which has no precedent in the country's legal history", they added.

Before the probe was announced on Friday, Berlusconi had said he was a victim of "political persecution on the part of left-wing magistrates".

Italy's top court on Thursday opened the way for corruption trials involving Berlusconi to resume after modifying a temporary immunity law that has shielded him.

Left-wing opposition politicians jumped in Saturday to condemn the prime minister.

"A prime minister targeted by an inquiry into prostitution of a minor is a disgrace on a global scale," the president of the southern Puglia region Nichi Vendola, a rising star of the left, commented.

"He should be ousted: there must be a minimum of decorum in this country, we are tired of hearing about the private life of a premier hunting for docile prey."

Pierluigi Bersani, head of the main left-wing Democratic Party, said that "a minor should be going to school, not to dinners with rich old men, and she shouldn't be going around with thousands of euros in her pocket".

Ruby, who turned 18 in November, told the Repubblica daily on Friday that she had been to Berlusconi's Arcore villa near Milan just three times for "normal dinners" and thought the prime minister was "lonely and unhappy".

A former call-girl, Nadia Macri, 28, said in November she had attended at least three of Berlusconi's parties, and described a selection process of young girls who were picked up on the street.

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