Silvio Berlusconi made an ill-judged attempt yesterday to laugh off the prostitution scandal that threatens to topple his government, declaring: "I'd be better than Superman if I'd had parties with 24 girls."
Mr Berlusconi (74), who is accused of having sexual intercourse with an under-age prostitute -- potentially the most damaging scandal of his 17-year political career -- made the quip to members of his governing People of Freedom Party during a meeting in parliament.
However, it was seized upon by the growing number of opposition MPs, business leaders and Roman Catholic Church representatives who have called for his resignation.
Mr Berlusconi is under investigation for having intercourse with Karima El Mahroug, a nightclub dancer who was 17 at the time of the alleged encounters. She denies that she slept with him and denies she was working as a prostitute.
In fresh evidence yesterday, her claim was contradicted by a former flatmate from whom the teenager allegedly stole jewellery and €3,000 in cash last May.
"I remember that she said she was very friendly with the prime minister and that she had often been to his house where she had had dinner, danced and had sex with him, for which he paid her a lot of money," Caterina Pasquino told investigators in July, according to leaked court documents.
Telephone conversations intercepted by Milan prosecutors during their months-long investigation of an alleged prostitution ring surrounding Mr Berlusconi disclosed the enormous amounts of money dispensed by Mr Berlusconi to a string of starlets, allegedly in return for sex.
In two phone calls intercepted last September, Ms El Mahroug, better known by her stage name of 'Ruby the Heart Stealer', repeatedly asked for money from Mr Berlusconi's accountant, Giuseppe Spinelli.
Mr Berlusconi also "lent" €1.2m to two men who have been named in the prostitution investigation.
If brought to trial and convicted, Mr Berlusconi would face up to three years in prison for having sex with an under-age prostitute, and up to 12 years for abuse of office in allegedly ordering police to release Ms El Mahroug from the theft allegation. (© Daily Telegraph, London)