ROME - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi slammed the paparazzi Sunday for taking photos of a new year's party at his Sardinian home that was attended by an 18-year-old at the heart of a political and personal storm.
At a campaign stop in Bari, Berlusconi also lamented that the scandal was playing out on the front pages of newspapers, saying such personal matters belonged exclusively in the private, family sphere.
"We've really hit bottom with this intrusion into the private lives of everyone," Berlusconi said.
Prosecutors on Saturday seized hundreds of photos taken by a Sardinian photographer of a new year's party at Berlusconi's villa that was attended by 18-year-old Noemi Letizia and dozens of other young women.
Berlusconi's relationship with Letizia has been the subject of intense speculation ever since his wife, Veronica Lario, cited his presence at Letizia's 18th birthday party in announcing a few weeks ago that she was divorcing the 72-year-old Berlusconi.
The prime minister has denied any scandalous relationship and said he knows Letizia's father through decades-old Socialist party circles. He has said he attended the birthday party because he happened to be in Naples that day. His aides have accused the centre-left opposition of grabbing onto gossip to try to discredit Berlusconi and his party before European Parliament elections this coming weekend.
Berlusconi said Sunday he had seen the photos of the new year's party and judged them harmless, but said he moved to have them seized because they violated his privacy.
"No one can accept that a photographer can come outside your home and photograph you inside your home," he said. "Protecting privacy is a fundamental right that is part of the more general right to freedom."
In addition to seizing the photos, Rome prosecutors also placed the photographer under investigation for alleged violation of privacy laws and fraud, stemming from his efforts to sell the photos to magazines, news reports said Sunday.
Berlusconi was asked Sunday about another report quoting an ally as saying Lario was the one who broke up the family with a relationship with her bodyguard.
Berlusconi didn't respond directly, saying only that he was saddened that "situations that belong exclusively to a family have been brought to the front pages of newspapers."
Also Sunday, Letizia's ex-boyfriend apologized to both Berlusconi and Letizia for having fuelled speculation about a presumed relationship. Gino Flaminio said in a letter published in Corriere della Sera that there never could have been a sexual relationship between the two "knowing Noemi and her values."
Flaminio had fanned the speculation in an interview last week with the left-leaning daily La Repubblica, in which he spoke about Letizia's presence at the new year's party. He also described what he said were phone calls between Berlusconi and Letizia that he listened in on, saying the prime minister asked her in one call about her schooling, her interests and what her parents do.
Letizia's father has said he would sue Repubblica and Flaminio for defamation.
Flaminio didn't say he was misquoted by Repubblica in his letter to the rival publication Corriere, only that he felt used by people who wanted to hurt Berlusconi.
"I'm sorry for what happened, which I never could have imagined," Flaminio wrote, according to Corriere. "I publicly ask for forgiveness from Noemi and everyone, for the clamour that ensued from our love story, and I hope for a world of good for everyone."
"Isn't it possible that the (prime minister) could have a private life?" Flaminio added. "What's wrong with being friends with a normal family?"