ROME - The Italian prime minister's children are coming to his defence after Italy's opposition leader questioned his values and asked whether Italians would want their kids raised by a man like him.

In a series of separate and joint statements, Silvio Berlusconi's five children said Dario Franceschini should be ashamed of himself for having dragged them into Italy's increasingly contentious campaign for European Parliament elections.

Marina Berlusconi - the prime minister's oldest child and a top official in his media empire - said she "would be thrilled for Franceschini's children" if they had a father like hers.

Franceschini later apologized.

Berlusconi has been on the defensive recently following questions raised over his relationship with an 18-year-old woman.

In addition, Berlusconi has come under fire from the opposition for having avoided prosecution in a Milan corruption case, thanks to an immunity bill his forces pushed through parliament.

Franceschini alluded to those issues during a campaign stop Wednesday.

"Berlusconi is a politically successful man, rich and powerful," Franceschini said, according to the ANSA and Apcom news agencies. "To the Italians, I want to ask a question: would you want your children brought up by this man? A man who leads a country must know how to transmit values, positive values."

Berlusconi's three children from his second marriage, Barbara, Eleonora and Luigi Berlusconi, said only they - his children - could respond to such a question.

"We were brought up in a sensible, family environment rich with values," they said, according to Apcom.

Their mother, Veronica Lario, cited Berlusconi's presence at the 18th birthday party of Noemi Letizia in announcing a few weeks ago that she wanted a divorce from the 72-year-old leader.

Berlusconi has denied there was anything scandalous in his relations with Letizia, whom he has described as the daughter of a friend from political circles. He has said he stopped by the party because he happened to be in Naples that day, though he has offered to explain further his relationship at an unspecified time.

The prime minister's aides have accused the centre-left opposition of clinging onto gossip to try to discredit Berlusconi's Freedom People's party ahead of June European Parliament elections.

Berlusconi's forces have a comfortable majority in both houses of the Italian parliament.

Franceschini later said he was sorry if the children had misinterpreted his comments.

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