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Berlusconi placed under investigation

Milan officials allege bribery

ROME -- Milan prosecutors have placed Italy's premier, Silvio Berlusconi, under investigation for allegedly bribing a lawyer to give false testimony in court cases against the leader, lawyers for both men said yesterday.

Berlusconi's lawyer denied the accusations, and charged that they were made public to damage the premier ahead of national elections in April.

Prosecutors have accused Berlusconi of ordering the payment of at least $600,000 to British lawyer David Mills in 1997 to persuade him to give false testimony in two of Berlusconi's trials on bribery, false bookkeeping and other charges, the newspaper Corriere della Sera reported, citing court documents.

Mills, who is married to British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, also is under investigation, the newspaper said.

Mills's lawyer, Federico Cecconi, confirmed the report's accuracy but denied the allegationsHe said prosecutors were investigating Berlusconi and Mills on charges of corruption and providing false testimony.

In Italy, placing suspects under investigation is a formal step taken before prosecutors decide whether to seek indictments.

''We reserve the right to reject these accusations at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way," Cecconi said.

Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini denied any payment had been made. He accused Corriere della Sera, a moderate daily that is Italy's best-selling broadsheet, of publishing details of the investigation to coincide with ''delicate moments in the life of the country."

General elections pitting Berlusconi against former premier Romano Prodi are set for April 9.

Berlusconi, who was elected in 2001 and is a key ally of President Bush, has been plagued by legal troubles surrounding his Milan-based business empire since he entered politics. He has contended he is the victim of a campaign by left-leaning magistrates.

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