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Italy's prime minister Berlusconi hit in the face

Over the years, Silvio Berlusconi has taken more than a few figurative blows, but until today no one had actually landed one for real.

That all changed in Milan when Italy's prime minister was hit in the face and knocked to the ground by a man who, according to reports, either hurled a punch or a miniature metal souvenir of Milan's cathedral, the Duomo.

Berlusconi, 73, had been signing autographs and shaking hands with the public minutes after addressing thousands of people at a rally for his People of Freedom party in front of the city's Duomo, when he was hit in the mouth.

He fell to the ground and was quickly ushered into a car by aides, but he repeatedly tried to get out again to show his bloodied face to the crowds and cameras in the square.

He was taken to a Milan's San Raffaele hospital, where an x-ray showed he had suffered a small fracture to his nose, damage to two teeth and cuts to his lip. Medical staff said he would be kept under observation there for 24 hours.

A hospital spokesman, Paolo Klun, said: "He wanted to go home right away, but he is being held as a precaution. He suffered significant bruising trauma." He said Berlusconi was "very shaken and demoralised. "He didn't understand very well what happened to him."

Police said they were questioning Massimo Tartaglia, 42, in connection with the incident. They said he did not have a criminal record.

The Italian defence minister Ignazio La Russa said he had helped to bundle the assailant away "to keep him from a possible lynching from the crowd".

Condemnation of the attack came from all sides of the political spectrum. "What they did to Berlusconi was an act of terrorism," said Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League party and the prime minister's closest ally. The opposition leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, said it was an "unspeakable gesture that must be firmly condemned".

Earlier in the evening Berlusconi had received a rock star welcome at a rally to mark the opening of public membership to the People of Freedom party. Saying that his popularity stood at 63%, he listed the successes of his government, which he said had included saving the world economy by persuading the US government to intervene "after they had left Lehman Brothers to their fate" in order to avoid "the failure of 400 banks, saving the world from an incredible and tremendous crisis".

At one point he interrupted the rally to address protesters who had been chanting "buffoon", saying they should be ashamed of themselves.

Towards the end he boasted that he was still "young and on form", opening his shirt to show that he "wasn't even wearing a vest", before he and a dozen ministers ended the rally with a sing-along of the national anthem.

Minutes later, the assault put an end to what should have been the prime minister's evening of triumph.



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