Silvio Berlusconi came under scathing attack last night for calling Italy a "shitty country" and suggesting that he could not wait to move overseas.
Opposition politicians said his remarks, made in a telephone conversation intercepted as part of an investigation into an alleged blackmail plot against the prime minister, were shameful and humiliating for Italy.
Mr Berlusconi made the comments during a conversation in July with one of three people accused of extorting money from him in return for allegedly covering up the presence of prostitutes at private parties at his mansion in Rome and villa in Sardinia.
"In a few months I'm going to go away from this shitty country which makes me sick," Mr Berlusconi said to one of the three, Valter Lavitola, according to a leaked transcript. He attempted to laugh off the remark, saying it was "one of those things you say on the telephone late at night".
However, the derogatory comment, made on July 16, outraged opposition MPs.
"Either he is completely irresponsible or he needs treatment," said Anna Finocchiaro, a senior figure in the opposition Democratic Party.
Luigi Zanda, a Democratic senator, called for the billionaire tycoon to resign. "Our international image is of a country governed by an oddball," he said.
The prime minister has described as "pure fantasy" allegations that he paid more than €570,000 to Giampaolo Tarantini, a convicted cocaine dealer, in exchange for Mr Tarantini insisting that Mr Berlusconi did not know that women recruited for his private parties were prostitutes.
Yesterday Italian police arrested Giampaolo Tarantini and his wife Angela Devenuto in Rome. A third suspect is being sought, police said.
Berlusconi is not under investigation in this case.
Mr Tarantini has admitted that he paid a high-end prostitute, Patrizia D'Addario, and other women to attend parties at Berlusconi's residences, but insists the premier didn't know they were paid.
Mr Tarantini is under investigation in Bari for allegedly aiding and abetting prostitution.
Naples prosecutor Francesco Greco said Mr Berlusconi had paid the Tarantini family's legal and housing costs, with the end result aimed at securing Tarantini's co-operation in the Bari prostitution investigation.
The premier has said he didn't feel victimised by Tarantini and says he was just helping a needy family.
Mr Berlusconi himself is on trial in Milan for allegedly paying a 17-year-old for sex at some of his parties. Both deny the allegations.
Ms D'Addario says she slept with Mr Berlusconi at his Rome residence and tape recorded the encounter -- recordings that were later leaked to an Italian news magazine.
The conservative leader has said he has never paid anyone for sex but has made no apologies for his lifestyle. (© Daily Telegraph, London)