Berlusconi again defends record as scandal mounts

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi insisted Friday he deserved to be premier and would fight to remain so "in the interests of the country," despite allegations he paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl and presided over parties where topless women danced for him.

An increasingly irritated Berlusconi issued his third video message to supporters in as many weeks to denounce the Milan prosecutors conducting the probe and try to stem the damage from near-daily leaks of wiretapped phone conversations of the women who partied at his palazzo.

"As you all know, firestorms don't scare me, and the bigger they are, the more I'm convinced that I have to react in the interest of all citizens, in the interest of our country," Berlusconi said, sitting against a sober background of the Italian and EU flags.

The wiretap transcripts and court documents, published in Italian newspapers, have described Berlusconi's Milan villa as a brothel, where young women would strip and dance with the 74-year-old premier and his friends after dining together. Prosecutors' interviews with the women also published in newspapers indicate the girls received jewelry, bags and cash from the premier.

Prosecutors have placed Berlusconi and three associates under investigation, alleging he paid for sex with one of the women, a 17-year-old Moroccan girl nicknamed Ruby, and used his office to cover it up.

Paying for sex with a prostitute is not a crime in Italy, unless the prostitute is younger than 18.

Berlusconi has denied the allegations, said he never paid for sex, and accused prosecutors of trying to drive him from office. He has said the dinner parties at his home were elegant soirees where nothing untoward occurred and has denounced the publication of the wiretaps as a violation of privacy.

Ruby, a Moroccan who is now 18, has denied she had sex with the premier, but has said he gave her euro7,000 ($9,400) to help her out financially. She has said she told Berlusconi she was 24.

The latest trove of intercepts, included in 200 pages of documentation prosecutors sent to parliament this week, include references to another minor, a Brazilian, who allegedly received jewels and other gifts in exchange for her participation at parties at a Berlusconi villa.

On Friday, Berlusconi's said he was not premier "by chance," but had been elected to office by a majority of Italian voters. He defended his government's record and insisted he was going forward.

"We govern, and will continue to govern, and the mud will fall back on those who are looking to use it against us," he said.