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Italy’s scandal-hit Berlusconi says ‘serene’ ahead of G8

Rome — Silvio Berlusconi said Monday he was "totally serene" ahead of this week’s G8 summit despite a reported bidding war for new photos that threaten to deepen the sex scandals surrounding the Italian leader.

"Everything is ready, I am totally serene," Berlusconi, 72, told the right-wing daily Il Giornale with world leaders set to converge on the central Italian city of L’Aquila, devastated by an earthquake on April 6.

The self-made billionaire dismissed a report by the Sunday Times in Britain that several European newspapers were bidding to purchase more photographs taken at his villa in Sardinia where he has hosted young women.

Quoting an "informed source," the Sunday Times said the pictures would be published on the eve of the summit starting Wednesday "for maximum impact."

One reportedly shows a smiling Berlusconi in a gazebo with five young women, two of them sitting on his lap while another two are kissing each other on the lips, the Sunday Times said.

But the media tycoon told Il Giornale, which is owned by his brother Paolo: "No embarrassing photos exist … I have nothing to fear. Rubbish reports and slander don’t affect me in the least."

"Certain foreign press linked to some in the Italian press are waging an unhealthy campaign," he added.

The Spanish newspaper El Pais in early June published explicit photographs of scantily clad guests cavorting at the villa on Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda.

One purportedly showed a totally nude former Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, who claims the photo was doctored.

The pictures are barred from publication in Italy.

Meanwhile, the left-wing Italian press, notably the daily La Repubblica, has relentlessly pursued the story of Berlusconi’s relationship with an 18-year-old aspiring model at the centre of his break-up with his second wife.

The scandals deepened when an investigation was launched into whether the prime minister entertained call girls at his parties.

The flamboyant prime minister answered that charge with the remark that he had never paid for sex, preferring the "pleasure of conquest."

While the scandals have titillated newspaper readers around the world, they have done little to dent Berlusconi’s popularity at home.

The latest ISPO/Gruppo Phonemedia survey showed a dip from a 51 percent to a 49 percent approval rating, with three percent of respondents stating that they envy the prime minister.

Another poll by the IPSOS institute found that more than one in three Italians think Berlusconi is the victim of a plot and only 26 percent believe the reports about the call girls.

In Monday’s interview Berlusconi also sought to allay fears over safety at the G8 venue, where aftershocks continue three months after the L’Aquila earthquake, which claimed 299 lives and left some 70,000 homeless.

The sprawl of reinforced concrete buildings is a training school for Italy’s militarised revenue police, the Guardia di Finanza.

"The citadel of the financial police is earthquake-proof," Berlusconi said. If a significant quake strikes, "all the guests will be in total safety."