ROME — Silvio Berlusconi hit out at members of his center-right party who want to "murder" him politically as an internal split provoked the scandal-tainted ex-premier's ire on Saturday.
Following late-night talks, Berlusconi's former right-hand man Angelino Alfano announced he would not remain at the side of his one-time mentor and would form a separate parliamentary grouping instead.
Berlusconi responded with fury at a meeting held by his People of Freedom (PDL) party in Rome, saying the move was tantamount to political assassination and against the spirit of the "coalition of moderates," referring to his center-right group of deputies.
"It is very difficult to be united in parliament and to sit at the same table at this meeting with people who want to murder the leader of their party politically," he said, without naming Alfano.
Alfano's faction, called the "New Center Right," could lure away about a third of PDL's deputies in the parliament and the Senate, media reports claimed Saturday.
"I am here to make a choice that I never thought I would make — not to join Forza Italia," Alfano said late Friday, referring to Berlusconi's project to relaunch the PDL under the name it carried when the mogul was first elected to parliament in 1994.
The 43-year-old Alfano said he made the decision because "these past few weeks have shown to what extent extreme forces have prevailed within our movement," referring to a belief by his supporters that Berlusconi was pandering to hardliners.
Berlusconi's party has been in turmoil ever since the former premier tried to bring down the government by pulling his ministers out of the cabinet at the end of September, and was forced into a humiliating climbdown when they refused to heed his orders.
The billionaire said Alfano's split was due to "differences not of policy or values but between personalities who have created a poisonous atmosphere".
He added he had not slept all night and expressed his "sadness" at the break-up, after which he was applauded at length by supporters.
In a conciliatory gesture Berlusconi added however that Alfano's grouping would be a "necessary member" of his center-right voting bloc, with Forza Italia at its head.
The 77-year-old flamboyant tycoon on Nov. 27 will face another humiliation — the prospect of being stripped of his parliament seat when the Senate votes whether to eject him under a law banning convicted criminals from the chamber.
The move comes after the Italy's supreme court on August 1 turned down his final appeal in a tax fraud case, handing Berlusconi his first-ever definitive conviction in a long history of legal woes. Berlusconi has asked to serve his 12-month sentence as community service.
Ejection from the Senate would mean Berlusconi being out of parliament for the first time since 1994, when the media and construction magnate first burst onto Italy's political scene.