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Berlusconi backs out of conference

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has scrapped a planned appearance at a conference on family values in Milan next week, amid reports of encounters with a prostitute and his ties to an under-age Moroccan girl.

Some attendees recently expressed unease over Mr Berlusconi's presence at the conference, which will include family associations, Cabinet ministers and members of the Roman Catholic Church, including the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi.

A statement from the premier's office said the Cabinet under-secretary in charge of family policies, Carlo Giovanardi, would open the conference on behalf of the government.

The decision was made to avoid expected protests against Mr Berlusconi and to keep the event focused on family policies, Mr Giovanardi said.

But even some of Mr Berlusconi's allies - part of a conservative coalition which champions traditional family values - were relieved at the decision which spared them potential embarrassment.

The 74-year-old Italian leader has been engulfed in a scandal over his ties to a Moroccan girl nicknamed Ruby, whom he helped free from police custody months ago.

The girl, who turned 18 just days ago, said she visited Mr Berlusconi's villa on at least one occasion, although she said she never had sex with him. Some have alleged that the premier's intervention with police to free her could be considered an abuse of power.

New allegations of sex with a prostitute have also surfaced this week.

Mr Berlusconi has denied any wrongdoing, denouncing what he called a campaign of "lies" and "unfounded attacks". He said he helped Ruby out of the goodness of his heart.

Famiglia Cristiana, an influential Catholic magazine which is distributed in parishes across Italy, wrote a strongly worded editorial on October 29 saying that Mr Berlusconi appeared to be affected by a pathology - "a state of illness, something uncontrollable, all the more so because it is made possible and in fact encouraged by his power and the immense wealth at his disposal". It said he set a bad example for citizens "who cannot even dream of transgression and parties".

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