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Italian premier declines to resign

ROME -- Premier Silvio Berlusconi yesterday defied predictions that he would quit as head of his weakened center-right government, prompting opposition charges that he was turning Italian politics into a joke.

Berlusconi's meeting with President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, to whom he would have to submit his resignation, topped a day of intense talks as the media magnate sought to find a way out of the worst political crisis of his four years in power.

When asked by reporters if he had handed in his resignation, Berlusconi responded, ''No," the ANSA news agency reported. Berlusconi was quoted as saying he would explain the situation in parliament, but it was unclear when he would do so.

Resigning to form a new government is a technique often used by Italian premiers to strengthen faltering coalitions, but Berlusconi has always resisted, sensing it would dent his image as a new-style politician.

The premier's decision not to step down surprised friends and foes, and left the country wondering whether he was closer to solving problems with his conservative allies or still locked in a stalemate with them.

Berlusconi's allies have pressured him to resign since his coalition was trounced in regional elections this month. Last week, a key centrist party, the Union of Christian Democrats, or UDC, pulled its ministers out of the Cabinet and demanded that Berlusconi form a fresh government with a new platform.

The confusion prompted outrage from the opposition center-left. Piero Fassino, leader of the Democratic Party of the Left, spoke of ''a crisis that is being transformed into an indecent farce."

''With his behavior, the premier is making a mockery of his coalition, the institutions, and the whole country at once," he said, quoted by the ANSA news agency. Another center-left politician, Gavino Angius, described the situation as an ''unacceptable shame."

Earlier yesterday, resignation seemed to emerge as the only way out of the crisis for Italy's longest-serving postwar government.

After an emergency meeting of coalition leaders in Rome, Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini issued a statement saying Berlusconi would step down. A top UDC official, Rocco Buttiglione, told reporters that an agreement had been found among coalition allies to form a new Berlusconi government.

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