Berlusconi in hospital after being punched by protester

Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was punched in the face at the end of a rally by a man holding a small statue, leaving the 73-year-old with a bloodied mouth and looking stunned, police said tonight.

A 42-year-old man was immediately taken into custody after the attack on Mr Berlusconi as he signed autographs in Milan.

Television images showed the leader with blood under his nose, on his mouth and under one eye as he was lifted to his feet by aides.

Mr Berlusconi was hustled into the back of a car, but he immediately got out, apparently in an effort to show he was not badly injured.

After looking out into the crowd, the premier, without saying a word, was pulled back into the vehicle.

The attack happened earlier this evening after Mr Berlusconi had just finished delivering a long, vigorous speech to a crowd of applauding supporters from his Freedom People party.

Officials at Milan’s police headquarters said the premier was conscious and apparently not badly injured.

They said the attacker was wielding a miniature statue of Milan’s Duomo, the city’s gargoyled cathedral and symbol, but could not say what the souvenir was made of.

Mr Berlusconi’s spokesman said doctors had decided to keep the premier in the city’s San Raffaele hospital overnight for observation, and that examination of his jaw area included a CT scan.

“We’ll see what the doctors say tomorrow morning,” he added.

Police identified the man they were questioning as Massimo Tartaglia, 42.

The attack happened during a difficult political time for Mr Berlusconi, who has been plagued by scandals.

On December 5, tens of thousands of Italians marched peacefully through Rome to demand his resignation.

The demonstrators expressed dismay over what they see as the businessman’s conflict of interests, citing repeated government-backed laws they contend were tailored to help shield Mr Berlusconi from prosecution in cases involving his media, real estate and sports empire. Mr Berlusconi claims the laws benefit all citizens.

Other critics cite Mr Berlusconi’s sex scandals.

Mr Berlusconi’s wife is divorcing him after complaining about his infatuation with young women.

A southern Italian businessman has told investigators he procured some 30 attractive young women for parties and dinners at the premier’s Rome residence and Sardinian villa. Among the guests was a high-class prostitute who claimed she slept with Mr Berlusconi.

The premier has denied ever paying for sex and steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.

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