SILVIO Berlusconi has insisted he is "not at all worried" about a looming trial in which he is accused of abuse of power and paying for an under-age prostitute, saying he intends to remain at the helm until his term expires in 2013.
Smiling and looking relaxed at a press conference in Rome, the 74-year-old Italian premier was asked repeatedly about the trial due to start on April 6, but eventually snapped: "For the love of the country, I will not talk about this. Enough!"
He did not say if he would turn up for the start of the trial. April 6 will be the second anniversary of the Abruzzo earthquake, which devastated the city of L'Aquila. And Mr Berlusconi's lawyers could claim he has official duties to attend to under a "legitimate impediment" law.
Prosecutors in Milan have compiled a 700-page dossier alleging the billionaire tycoon paid for the sexual favours of a 17-year-old nightclub dancer, nicknamed Ruby the Heart Stealer, and that he then abused his powers by pressuring police to release her from custody on a theft charge.
Together, the charges could land him in prison for up to 15 years and see him permanently barred from public office. He has denied all the allegations.
"We have never been more united and more decided to continue this parliament until its mandate runs out," the Italian prime minister breezily informed a news conference. "All I can say is that I'm not at all worried."
New elections are not scheduled until 2013. But he was alarmed enough to break off a trip to Sicily on Tuesday and return to Rome for a session with his lawyers.
Mr Berlusconi also faces new hearings on two tax fraud cases and charges that he allegedly bribed David Mills, the British lawyer, after his immunity from prosecution was lifted by the Constitutional Court.
Mr Berlusconi's closest advisers seem sanguine about the trial in April. Lawyers are hinting it might be possible to establish that the young woman at its centre, whose real name is Karima El Mahroug, was 18 at the time that she was a guest at Mr Berlusconi's private parties.
Fresh evidence emerged, meanwhile, suggesting the prime minister lied when he ordered police in Milan to release the dancer from unrelated theft charges on the night of May 27 last year.
He told police that she was the granddaughter of Hosni Mubarak, the recently deposed Egyptian president, and that he wanted her released from custody in order to avoid a diplomatic incident.
But Miss El Mahroug told investigators on August 3 last year that although she had initially claimed she was 24 and from Egypt, she later told Mr Berlusconi she was only 17, and of Moroccan background, according to transcripts published by 'La Repubblica' newspaper.
She said she made the admission in March, three months before her arrest, because she was worried the false details could jeopardise her chances of being registered as the tenant of a new flat that he reportedly offered to put her up in rent-free. (© Daily Telegraph, London)