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Berlusconi in hint at successor

Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi says his justice minister could succeed him as the conservative party leader, further signalling his intention not to seek re-election when his term ends in 2013.

Mr Berlusconi announced in December that he would probably step aside at the end of the legislature in 2013. His comments to foreign journalists strengthened the likelihood that his nearly two decades in power are coming to an end.

The 74-year-old said he might still be involved in party politics in an elder statesman's role, but would not play "an active role in the government".

He will, however, consult the polls before making any decision.

For premier, Mr Berlusconi gave the nod to justice minister Angelino Alfano, at 40 seen as a rising star of Italian politics.

Mr Berlusconi also dismissed speculation he might campaign to become president of the republic, a largely ceremonial role elected by parliament. He said his right-hand man of many years, Gianni Letta, a widely respected figure, was an "extraordinary candidate" for the job.

Mr Berlusconi stepped into politics in 1994 from his media empire, winning elections within months of forming a political party. Since then, he has run in every election, winning two more times and losing twice. The premier is also Italy's longest-serving premier, having survived corruption allegations, international gaffes and, more recently, sex scandals.

A Sicilian and close Berlusconi ally, Mr Alfano is the man behind a highly controversial justice reform that includes a measure critics charge was tailor-made to save the premier from an ongoing trial. The lower house was voting on the measure on Wednesday amid high tensions.

During a wide-ranging conversation with foreign journalists, Mr Berlusconi also discussed his close ties with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The Italian leader said, because of these ties, he even considered resigning when the international coalition was formed to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Italy eventually took part in the coalition - a decision Mr Berlusconi said was fraught with "personal difficulties" - allowing Nato use of seven bases in Italy and employing its own aircraft.

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