Sat, May 29, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Silvio 007 builds a tunnel

ROME , DPA

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi delivers the opening address at the national congress of the Forza Italia party in Assago, near Milan, on Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's media mogul-turned-premier, has a wealth of nicknames, ranging from the Cavalier and Berluskaiser to the Great Seducer.

Yet another appellative is now being added to this list: Secret Agent Silvio 007.

According to the Italian media, Italy's richest and most powerful man is building a concealed tunnel under La Certosa, his luxurious 2,500-square-meter seaside Sardinian villa.

Starting from a natural sea grotto on the Punta Lada peninsula at the northern end of the Mediterranean island, the tunnel will allow visitors to reach a secret entrance to the property by boat.

This is not merely a rich man's folly, it is pointed out, as La Certosa's regular visitors include the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Spanish Premier Jose Maria Aznar.

"Like in The Spy Who Loved Me, he will reach the heart of the mountain by submarine. Or perhaps, in case of danger, by swimming underwater and slipping out of his wetsuit in the elevator that takes him up to his villa," joked Oggi weekly.

While most may tend to view Berlusconi's "secret tunnel" as being a rather inconsequential affair, the addition has infuriated environmentalists and opposition lawmakers.

They point out that it is being built in a naturally beautiful area which is also state property. Technically, Berlusconi should seek permission from planning agencies, but according to La Repubblica, local officials deny any knowledge of the tunnel construction.

Opposition lawmakers recently asked parliament to investigate, but Paolo Bonaiuti, Berlusconi's spokesman, told them it was merely "an improvement to a private property."

Local magistrates have also opened an enquiry, Oggi reported, but the probe had to be abandoned on May 7 when the Public Works Ministry introduced a decree saying the tunnel work was "classified" for security reasons.

This move has reinforced speculation that Berlusconi may be planning to invite another close ally, US President George W. Bush, to La Certosa.

Underlining the project's secretive nature, a local opposition senator, Gianni Nieddu, recently attempted to approach the scaffolding and pontoons by boat, but was promptly identified and turned away by police who cited "national security" reasons, La Repubblica said on Thursday.

Berlusconi bought the 27-room villa, which overlooks the crystal-clear waters of one of the Mediterranean's most beautiful bays, some 20 years ago, when he was still a businessman.

A year later, he annexed the nearby Villa Stephanie, bought from a Lebanese businessman for US$1.6 million.

Berlusconi has been using the setting for a new style of informal diplomacy with world leaders.

Ahead of Putin's last visit to the villa, in August 2003, Berlusconi created an exotic new cactus garden in its grounds and invited star tenor Andrea Bocelli for a sing-along.

He is now also building a granite replica of a Greek amphitheater, photos of which were published by La Repubblica on Thursday.

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