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Arrest over Berlusconi 'blackmail'

Italian police have arrested a businessman accused of allegedly extorting money from premier Silvio Berlusconi to ensure the man's co-operation in a probe over recruiting prostitutes to attend wild parties at Mr Berlusconi's home.

Giampaolo Tarantini and his wife Angela Devenuto were arrested in Rome and a third suspect was being sought, police in Naples said. Mr Berlusconi is not under investigation in this case.

Tarantini has admitted he paid a high-class prostitute, Patrizia D'Addario, and other women to attend parties at Mr Berlusconi's residences, but insists the prime minister did not know. 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.

Mr Greco said the payment was aimed at ensuring that Tarantini entered a plea bargain rather than let the case go to trial. Such a move would limit the publication of possibly embarrassing telephone intercepts concerning the women who went to Mr Berlusconi's parties.

Mr Greco did not specify the amount paid, but the Panorama news magazine, which broke news of the investigation last week, said Tarantini received 500,000 euro (£441,000) and subsequent monthly payments from the premier.

The alleged middleman, Valter Lavitola, is being sought.

Mr Berlusconi is not under investigation and is considered the victim in the case, a Naples policewoman said. The premier has said he did not feel victimised by Tarantini and was just helping a needy family.

"I helped someone and a family with children who found themselves and continue to find themselves in very serious financial difficulty," Mr Berlusconi was quoted as saying by Panorama, a magazine in his media empire.

"I didn't do anything illegal, I limited myself to helping a desperate man without asking for anything in exchange. That's how I'm made and nothing will change that."

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