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Over to Italy now, where the scandal keeps growing over the nature of the relationship between Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi and a teenage woman. He believes he's become the target of a smear campaign by the leftist opposition, and he's gone on the offensive against the foreign media, especially the British press, as the story keeps growing. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Berlusconi's latest move was blocking publication of hundreds of photos taken of his guests at "Dolce Vita"-style parties at his sumptuous Sardinian villa. The photos allegedly include young, topless women and a top-ranking European politician in the nude.

The scandal erupted a month ago, when Berlusconi went to the 18th birthday party of aspiring starlet Noemi Letizia in Naples, where he gave her a diamond and gold necklace worth many thousands of dollars.

Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, then filed for divorce, saying she could no longer remain with a man who frequents minors. She spoke of her husband's fondness for young women who, she said, offer themselves like young virgins to the dragon to pursue fame and fortune.

Berlusconi first said he was an acquaintance of Noemi Letizia's parents, a claim contradicted by Noemi's former boyfriend Gino Flaminio.

Mr. GINO FLAMINIO: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: He told the left-leaning daily La Repubblica that Berlusconi first called his former girlfriend directly last November after chancing upon her modeling photos. And Berlusconi, Flaminio said, invited the underage girl and her girlfriend to spend New Year's vacation at his villa, together with dozens of other young women.

Berlusconi's wife had also criticized her husband for putting young starlets and showgirls on his party slate for parliament, calling it political trash. Alexander Stille, author of a book on Berlusconi's political and media control, says the prime minister has concentrated power in his own hands, also thanks to a new electoral law that allows party leaders to pick candidates.

Mr. ALEXANDER STILLE (Author): What that meant is that the favorites of the king are the people who get into parliament. And so suddenly, you've seen this profusion of beautiful girls and fashion models and TV stars and showgirls in parliament.

POGGIOLI: Stille says they're just ornaments, meaning parliament's function of checking the executive has been weakened.

Berlusconi also controls a large chunk of the Italian media, directly through ownership and indirectly through his large advertising agency and his political power. With the exception of La Repubblica and a few other outlets, Italian journalists have treated the scandal with kid gloves - not so elsewhere.

The European media has been relentless in its coverage of Noemi-gate, and an editorial in the Financial Times said Berlusconi is no fascist, but a danger in the first place to Italy and a maligned example to all. The prime minister retorted with a quip.

Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Through translator) Mussolini had squadrons of black shirts. According to the foreign media, which are in the service of the Italian left, I have squadrons of showgirls. Thank God for that. They're much better.

POGGIOLI: But it's clear the prime minister is worried about his image abroad and has gone on the offensive. He charged that publications such as the Financial Times, the Economist and the Times of London are part of a plot orchestrated by the left.

Some of the prime minister's closest aides have gone even further, hinting at the alleged existence of a campaign hatched in Washington against an Italian leader who was very close to former President George Bush.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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