ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi dismissed calls to resign on Tuesday over reports he helped a 17-year-old girl who attended parties at his house, saying it was "better to like beautiful girls than to be gay."
He refused to apologise for his fondness for young women and denied doing anything improper, after the case of the girl known as Ruby filled Italian newspapers last week and opposition lawmakers called for him to step down.
"As always, I work without interruption and if occasionally I happen to look a beautiful girl in the face, it's better to like beautiful girls than to be gay," he told a meeting at a motorcycle industry show in Milan.
"You should be completely reassured about the government and about the fact that it's a government that still has a majority that intends to govern until the end of its term," he said.
Berlusconi, 74, has brushed off scandals over women, prostitutes and parties in the past but has been under unusual pressure since newspapers last week carried reports about the teenager who attended parties at his villa at Arcore near Milan.
The Corriere della Sera daily reported details of a phone call it said Berlusconi made to a Milan police chief on Ruby's behalf when she was detained over a separate theft in May, raising questions of whether he improperly intervened.
Berlusconi says he helped Ruby, a Moroccan runaway whose real name is reported by newspapers to be Karima El Mahroug, but he denies exerting any improper pressure on police officers.
"This recent storm in the newspapers is a paper storm," Berlusconi said. "You will see in the end that nothing else happened apart from an act of solidarity by the prime minister, which I would have been ashamed not to do."
In an interview with the weekly Oggi, the teenager, who has since turned 18, said she received 7,000 euros ($9,760) from Berlusconi after a party in February, which she attended with a group of 10 other young women.
She has denied having sex with him and said she had told him she was 24 years old when they met.
The so-called "bunga bunga" case (after a sexual reference in the punchline of one of Berlusconi's favourite lewd jokes) has sparked a media storm in Italy and taken on a life of its own in Internet parodies and YouTube clips.
Beyond the immediate scandal, Italian newspapers have begun speculating that the case could bring down Berlusconi's fragile centre-right coalition, which is kept alive through an uneasy truce with his former ally-turned bitter rival Gianfranco Fini.
In a front-page editorial, business daily Il Sole 24 Ore wrote: "One point is certain. The Berlusconi government is paralysed. Virtually dead, you could say, due to the loss of credibility by its leader."
On Sunday, Fini said the affair had become an embarrassment to Italy but he has so far resisted calls from the centre-left to use his numbers in parliament to bring down the government and trigger early elections, which are not due until 2013.
Adding to the picture, Berlusconi is also under fire over a rubbish crisis in the southern city of Naples which has left more than 2,000 tonnes of garbage on the streets, although he says municipal authorities are to blame.
His comments about homosexuality drew immediate condemnation from gay rights groups and were also criticised by Hollywood actress Julianne Moore, who was attending the Rome Film Festival to present "The Kids Are All Right," a film about a lesbian couple raising their teenage children.
"I think it's unfortunate, archaic and idiotic," she said, when asked for her reaction to Berlusconi's comments.
In the interview with Oggi, the teenager at the centre of the scandal said Berlusconi had not asked for anything in return for the money and a necklace he gave her but she said he should pay more attention to the people he let into his house.
"He is an institution, he should behave that way," she said. "He can't expect discretion from people he doesn't know."
Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Diana Abdallah