ROME - An Italian man who broke Silvio Berlusconi's nose and teeth by striking him with a souvenir model has apologised to the Italian prime minister for his cowardly and rash act, the attacker's lawyers said.
Berlusconi, 73, who allies say was left badly shaken and upset by the Sunday attack at a Milan rally, will be discharged from hospital on Wednesday but must rest for at least two weeks, his personal doctor said on Tuesday.
Analysts say the sympathy factor from the vivid images of Berlusconi with blood splattered over his face is likely to boost the premier's political fortunes, just as his popularity had begun to slide over mounting legal woes and sex scandals.
Lawyers for Massimo Tartaglia said the 42-year-old attacker acted alone and without any political or militant interests, as Italians continued their soul-searching over whether the assault was the fruit of a climate of hatred around the premier.
In a letter sent to Berlusconi from his jail cell, Tartaglia expressed heartfelt regret for a superficial, cowardly and rash act in which he did not recognise himself, his lawyers said.
Italy's interior minister called it a premeditated attack driven by long-simmering anger towards Berlusconi, triggered by a number of scandals surrounding him.
Tartaglia, who has a history of mental illness, had been waiting at the rally square since morning in preparation for the evening attack and also carried pepper spray and a crucifix made of resin, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told parliament.
The small, spiked replica of Milan's gothic cathedral that Tartaglia hurled at the premier from close range while he signed autographs was purchased at a booth at the square, Maroni said.
Maroni said security forces could not be blamed for failing to prevent the attack.
A NEW PHASE
The assault and resulting sympathy could help heal a rift between Berlusconi and senior ally Gianfranco Fini, who has criticised the prime minister repeatedly over the past month but rushed to defend him after the attack, a conservative lawmaker said.
This episode will open a new phase, Italo Bocchino, a close ally of Fini, told La Stampa daily. It will narrow the distance (between them) in recent months and could put their differences on the backburner, boosting internal unity.
But the rift was still apparent on Tuesday when Fini called a government request for a budget confidence vote disgraceful, saying it stemmed from internal tension in the ruling coalition.
Berlusconi's allies have blamed the attack on what they say is a climate of hate swirling around the premier, who has long complained of being besieged by communist magistrates, the media and leftists trying to bring down his government.
Conservative lawmakers staged a walkout when one opposition party leader Antonio Di Pietro, who has said the prime minister himself was the instigator of the attack due to his combative behaviour and insults, began speaking to parliament on Tuesday.
A popular but divisive figure, Berlusconi has this year battled allegations of an improper relationship with a teenage model and parties with escorts and now faces the reopening of corruption and fraud trials as well as allegations of links to the Mafia in the trial of one of his close associates.
The premier says he is confident of acquittal in the graft trials and denies any connection with the Cosa Nostra.
(Editing by Matthew Jones)