Rome: Italian opposition parties stepped up calls on Tuesday for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to resign over a probe into allegations he paid for sex with several young women, including a 17-year old nightclub dancer.
The head of the largest opposition party led a chorus of calls for his resignation after a report by magistrates that was sent to parliament said a "significant" number of young women prostituted themselves with Berlusconi at his homes.
"Since Berlusconi`s private life seems to be so intense, he should return to it," said Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the Democratic Party.
The conservative prime minister has successfully seen off a series of sex scandals in recent years. But the latest comes at a difficult time as he no longer enjoys a secure parliamentary majority following a split with former ally Gianfranco Fini.
Berlusconi narrowly scraped through a confidence vote last month and last week Italy`s top court struck down part of a law that gave him immunity from prosecution.
Italian media had a field day reporting leaked transcripts of phone conversations between some of the women who attended parties at Berlusconi`s villa near Milan, described as "bunga bunga" parties in reference to lewd activity.
The investigation focuses on Karima El Mahroug, an 18-year old Moroccan who attended Berlusconi`s parties when she was 17 and, according to prosecutors, was paid to have sex with him.
Having sex with a prostitute aged under 18 is an offence in Italy.
The transcripts, cited by Italian media, quote El Mahroug saying that she had asked Berlusconi for hush money and was told by the prime minister that she would receive "as much money as you want" if she hid everything. In another reported conversation, one of the women refers to Berlusconi`s residence as a "whore house."
Berlusconi says the allegations are absurd. He says he never paid for sex and has been in a stable relationship since separating from his second wife, who left him in a blaze of publicity in 2009, accusing him of "frequenting minors."
The transcripts are part of a 385-page dossier detailing the investigation of the 74-year old billionaire on suspicion of abuse of office and having sex with an underage prostitute.
Prosecutors sent it to the lower house of parliament to justify their request to search the office of a Berlusconi associate they believe handled the payments to the women.
Opposition politicians said the scale of the allegations and the sordid details of the parties made Berlusconi`s position untenable and badly hurt Italy`s international image.
"Not even the great poet Dante, when he portrayed the Inferno, got this far," said Leoluca Orlando, a spokesman for the small Italy of Values opposition party.
"Prostitution, minors, abuse of power: it`s stuff that makes you sick," said Oliviero Diliberto of the Left Federation. "Berlusconi cannot stay on one more minute: he is at risk of blackmail and as such cannot remain as prime minister," he said.
The newspaper of Italy`s Catholic bishops, Avvenire, called the investigation a "devastating tornado" highlighting the need for politicians to maintain a sober, respectful behaviour.
Prosecutors have summoned Berlusconi, who already faces trials on corruption and tax fraud charges, for questioning this weekend on the latest scandal but it is unclear if he will go.
Magistrates also suspect Berlusconi pressured police to release El Mahroug, who goes by the stage name of "Ruby the Heartrobber," last May when she was detained for theft.
The prime minister and his allies have branded the probe a plot by biased magistrates bent on destroying his career, accusing prosecutors of prying into his private life and spying on his guests.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the investigation "will turn out to be a big set-up, like in the past," and said he saw no reason for Berlusconi to step down.