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Berlusconi taken to hospital for heart tests

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was being tested for a heart problem in a hospital intensive care unit on Sunday after collapsing at a rally.
/ Source: Reuters

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was being tested for a heart problem in a hospital intensive care unit on Sunday after collapsing while delivering a speech.

Aides sought to reassure Italians that his condition was not serious but the incident was likely to fuel speculation that Berlusconi, now 70, could step down as leader of Italy’s center-right opposition.

Berlusconi’s eyes closed and his legs gave way as he was delivering the closing address at a rally of young followers in Montecatini Terme, in Tuscany, on Sunday. He was propped up by aides and taken off stage to be assisted by his personal doctor.

“There is no emergency, no alarm,” spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti told Reuters, adding Berlusconi was in intensive care at Milan’s San Raffaele hospital because his cardiologist heads that unit.

“But it’s a good thing he’s there because the unit is very well equipped so they can do all the tests necessary,” he said.

Future problems downplayed
He added that did not know when Berlusconi would be discharged, but he was “absolutely sure” he would be fit to lead a major demonstration planned next Saturday in Rome against the government’s belt-tightening 2007 budget.

Berlusconi had earlier told reporters outside his villa near Milan that he would spend the night in hospital.

“They found something on the electrocardiogram, something like an irregular heartbeat, so they want to keep me under observation for 24 hours,” said Berlusconi, who overcame prostate cancer in the 1990s.

He thanked the small crowd, which chanted “Silvio!, Silvio!”, before leaving for the hospital by helicopter.

Italy’s richest man, Berlusconi served as prime minister for five years until suffering defeat by the narrowest of margins in a general election in April.

Charged with fraud
He went on trial last week charged with fraud at broadcaster Mediaset, which his family controls, the latest in a series of legal battles which have dogged him since he entered politics in 1994. He denies all wrongdoing in the case, which is due to resume on Monday.

Before leaving for hospital Berlusconi told reporters his collapse had been down to a combination of tiredness, antibiotics he was taking after a knee operation, and the heat at the venue.

His doctor, Umberto Scarpagnini, said he lost consciousness “for a few seconds due to great fatigue and the extreme heat”.

In a message addressing his arch-rival as “Dear Silvio,” Prime Minister Romano Prodi expressed his concern. “I am sure it’s a small problem and I wish you a rapid recovery,” Prodi said.

Known to his followers as “Il Cavaliere” (the Knight), Berlusconi has proved a divisive figure in Italian politics. His wealth and drive have earned him many admirers, but critics on the left see him as an opportunist often motivated by defending his own business interests.

He has taken a surprisingly low profile since his election defeat. Last week he denied a newspaper report that he had told a private gathering he would not lead the center right at the next election.