Berlusconi moves to block photos

ROME: Premier Silvio Berlusconi is fighting back in a scandal feeding on his fondness for young women, with his lawyer acknowledging Saturday the media mogul has moved to block publication of hundreds of photos taken of guests at his sumptuous Sardinian villa.

State television reported that among the photos were some taken last New Year's Eve, with the guests including an 18-year-old Neapolitan woman at the heart of the political and personal scandal.

The 72-year-old Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, announced a few weeks ago that she was seeking a divorce, in part because of what she lamented was her husband's infatuation with young women.

Berlusconi, speaking by telephone to an election rally in northern Italy Saturday, described himself as the victim of a campaign of "insults" he alleged was run by the center-left opposition to discredit him ahead of European Parliament elections next weekend.

The Corriere della Sera and La Stampa daily newspapers ran a photograph of what they said was a letter sent by the premier to Italy's watchdog on privacy, asking that the authorities do what is necessary to block "use or publication" of the photos.

Corriere della Sera, without attribution, said that among the photos were some that showed young women topless or in bikinis in the gardens of the villa.

Berlusconi's lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, in a statement Saturday evening, insisted that there was nothing racy in the photos, contending the images show people in "situations that are absolutely normal."

None of those photographed were minors, except in some cases, the children of a visiting Czech prime minister were photographed while the family was a guest at the villa, Ghedini said.

Berlusconi has denied anything "spicy" in his relationship with 18-year-old, Noemi Letizia. He has said he went to Letizia's 18th birthday party because he happened to be in Naples that night and because he knew her father years ago from political circles.

The premier's wife cited the birthday party in announcing she was splitting from Berlusconi, complaining that he never attended any of their own three children's 18th birthday bashes.

Berlusconi has sworn on the "head of his children" that he has never had any improper relationship with any minor.

The Sardinian photographer who apparently took most of the photos in question, Antonello Zappadu, went to the Carabinieri paramilitary police headquarters in Cagliari Saturday evening to hand over a CD with the photos, the Italian news agency ANSA reported from the capital of the Mediterranean island.

State TV said Rome prosecutors had ordered the photos to be seized and that Zappadu was under investigation for violating privacy laws.

The photographer could not immediately be reached for comment.

Whatever the photos in question show, several photographs were published a couple years ago on the pages of Italian gossip magazines showing Berlusconi with young women he was hosting at his villa.

One photo shows several women crowded close to Berlusconi as they sit on a bench on the villa's sprawling grounds. One of the women is sitting on Berlusconi's leg. In another photo, Berlusconi is shown strolling with two women, one holding his right hand and the other holding his left.