Clashes as Berlusconi survives no-confidence vote

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Rome was on Wednesday recovering from a night of violence that left 90 people injured and dozens arrested after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi survived a crucial no-confidence vote.

Berlusconi scraped through by just three votes, with 314 lawmakers voting in his favor, 311 against and two abstentions in the 630-seat lower house.

Angry protesters banged on the metal blinds of shuttered shops in the centre of Rome as word spread that Berlusconi had survived the vote.

Some protesters set cars alight and hurled cobblestones and fireworks at police, sending tourists fleeing from the battle zones.

Riot police fired tear gas and could be seen striking some of the protesters with truncheons in running street fights.

An AFP reporter saw one police officer draw his gun as he was dragged to the ground by protesters, before his colleagues pulled him clear.

Police dragged off several protesters, some of whom had blood streaming down their faces.

"I didn't just survive, I'm strong," Berlusconi said, adding however that enacting much-needed structural reforms would now be "more difficult."

"I am convinced that an election campaign at this time is something the country absolutely does not need," Berlusconi told reporters.

But he added: "If it's impossible to govern, we won't stay floating. I will go into an election campaign with great enthusiasm."

Berlusconi's current mandate runs until 2013.

The Italian leader also said he would aim to widen his ruling coalition and the government to include former foes who voted for him.

Parliament speaker Gianfranco Fini, whose defection from the coalition led to the no-confidence vote, said Berlusconi had only won "a numerical victory".

But he conceded that his Future and Freedom for Italy movement had suffered a "painful" defeat.

Earlier Tuesday, Berlusconi had won a confidence vote in the Senate by a large majority.

At least 90 people were injured in the violence, including 50 security officers and 40 protesters, officials said. Of the protesters injured, 22 needed hospital treatment, said medical sources.

Police said they arrested around 50 people on charges of violence, vandalism and use of illegal arms.

Felice Romano, leader of the police officers' union SIULP, denounced what he called the "intolerable violence orchestrated by professionals of disorder and assassins of democracy."

Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the main leftist Democratic Party opposition, expressed his sympathy for the officers who had been assaulted and injured, while also declaring solidarity with those who had demonstrated peacefully.

Of Berlusconi's victory, Bersani said: "Whether you have one vote more or one vote less, you are not in a position to guarantee the stability of the government."

The clashes came after a peaceful march by tens of thousands of anti-Berlusconi protesters through the centre of Rome. Organisers claimed around 100,000 had turned out in the capital.

There were also protests in some of Italy's biggest cities including Genoa, Milan, Naples and Turin.

The vote was seen as one of the most serious challenges to Berlusconi in his 16-year political career -- and despite his win, it leaves his government vulnerable, with early elections still a possibility, analysts said.

There were heated debates and chaotic scenes in the Italian parliament, where supporters and opponents of Berlusconi could be seen shoving each other at one point shortly before the result of the vote was announced.

Berlusconi, 74, first launched himself onto a corruption-ridden political scene in the early 1990s. He won elections in 1994, 2001 and 2008, brushing off a series of sex and graft scandals along the way.

The no-confidence vote followed a bitter split within the ruling coalition after Fini, who has remained loyal to Berlusconi throughout the Italian leader's 16-year career, broke away along with around 40 lawmakers.

Berlusconi argued that a vote against him would be damaging for the Italian economy given the current turbulence on eurozone financial markets.

"We have to show the global financial system that we are a solid, compact, well-governed and stable country," Berlusconi said after his victory.

Italy has the highest level of public debt in the eurozone, forecast at 118.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) for this year.

The reaction on the markets was positive, with the benchmark FTSE Mib index closing up 0.36 percent. Shares in Berlusconi's media empire Mediaset, which had fallen sharply in recent weeks, shot up by 3.29 percent.

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