Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, dogged by accusations of cavorting with teenagers and high-end prostitutes, said on Wednesday he was 'no saint" and vowed to govern until the end of his mandate.
In his first public remarks since newspapers posted audiotapes of conversations supposedly between him and an escort, a defiant Berlusconi sought to dismiss the scandal with one of his trademark quips.
"There are tonnes of good-looking girls and entrepreneurs out there," he said at the inauguration of a building site for a new motorway in northern Italy.
"I am not a saint, you've all understood that. I hope those at La Repubblica also understand it," he said, referring to the left-leaning daily which has led demands that he clear up aspects of his personal life.
The websites of La Repubblica and weekly magazine L'Espresso have posted recordings of conversations they said were between Berlusconi and Patrizia D'Addario, an escort who says she and other women were paid to attend parties at Berlusconi's residence in Rome.
The 72-year old conservative prime minister, who often boasts of his sexual prowess, has not denied that D'Addario went to his home, but has said that he did not know she was an escort and that he has never paid for sex.
D'Addario, 42, says she made the recordings during a night she spent with the prime minister on Nov 4, 2008 -- the date of US President Barack Obama's historic election victory -- and during various telephone conversations.
She has handed the tapes to magistrates investigating a businessman, Giampaolo Tarantini, on suspicion of providing paid escorts to curry political favours for an enterprise in the southern city of Bari, from where D'Addario also hails.
In one of the conversations, re-published by all mainstream newspapers, a man purported to be Berlusconi tells D'Addario they should both take showers and whoever finished first should wait in "the big bed", said to be a gift from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
In another conversation said to be between Berlusconi and D'Addario the next day, he expresses surprise when D'Addario says she lost her voice, "because we didn't scream".
Other recordings involve conversations between D'Addario and Tarantini, with her saying she had expected to receive money but did not, and that Berlusconi had promised to help her solve a problem with a real estate deal.
Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini on Monday dismissed the recordings as "totally unlikely and the product of the imagination", saying it was illegal to post or publish them -- but that did not stop the posting of new tapes.
An opinion poll published on Tuesday showed Berlusconi's approval rating falling below 50 per cent for the first time since he won a landslide election victory last year, but he has said the sex scandals will not hurt his government.
Speaking of new public works to be inaugurated in 2013 -- when his mandate ends -- he said on Wednesday: "We will all still be around, because how could Italians do without us?"
"Last night I wrote down all the things that the government has done in the past 14 months... when I got to the end, I realised why I am so tired," he said.
Berlusconi has accused L'Espresso and La Repubblica -- part of the same publishing group -- of waging a "subversive" gossip campaign to oust him and has urged business leaders to stop paying for advertisements on their pages.
The news group's lawyers filed a suit against him on Wednesday, alleging defamation, abuse of power and market abuse.