Berlusconi defends NATO summit phone gaffe


June 18, 2010 Updated Apr 4, 2009 at 3:11 PM EDT

Gaffe-prone Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi insisted Saturday he had been helping settled the vexed issue of who would lead NATO when he skipped a group photo of the alliance's 28 leaders.

Berlusconi said he had been talking to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a successful attempt to convince him to drop Ankara's objections to Danish leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen being named NATO secretary general.

Earlier, the Italian premier had raised eyebrows by turning his back on Chancellor Angela Merkel as she waited to receive her fellow leaders on a red carpet, and wandering off with his mobile telephone pinned to his ear.

The apparent faux pas came as NATO leaders attending a summit arrived to pose for a photo on a bridge spanning the River Rhine, which separates co-hosts Germany and France.

Arriving on the German side of the river, Berlusconi got out of his limousine with his cellphone to his ear and turned his back on Merkel instead of walking to greet her.

Left standing alone on the red carpet, Merkel smiled weakly and proceeded to greet half a dozen other leaders as they arrived in their motorcades.

Once the leaders had all arrived seven or eight minutes later, Merkel gave up on Berlusconi and went to join those waiting for the photo.

When a brass band struck up, Berlusconi put his finger in his ear and walked further down the river bank to escape the noise.

The leaders, including US President Barack Obama, then crossed the bridge to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy who met them midway, and posed for the photo without Berlusconi.

Meeting on the bridge between old foes France and Germany was of symbolic significance as NATO leaders began the final day of a summit marking the military alliance's 60th anniversary.

Berlusconi denied he had offended his hosts, saying he was continuing efforts that started with a call to Erdogan Friday.

"Madame Merkel knew very well that I was on the phone in the car with Mr Erdogan and that I went aside to continue my effort to convince," he said.

Rasmussen's nomination was called into question when Turkey -- which like any NATO member could have vetoed the decision -- raised objections.

Ankara had not forgiven him for defending a Danish newspaper's right to court controversy in 2005 by printing cartoons of Islam's Prophet Mohammed, nor for refusing a Turkish request to shut a Kurdish TV channel.

But NATO leaders finally persuaded Turkey to give way.

Berlusconi said that after talking to Erdogan -- who had taken a tougher line on Rasmussen than Turkish President Adbullah Gul -- he had detailed his discussion to Gul, who was at the summit along with Rasmussen and Obama.

Turkey wanted "guarantees" and got them, Berlusconi said.

Rasmussen pledged Saturday to strengthen NATO's ties with the Muslim world, seen as crucial because of the alliance's operations in Afghanistan.

Gul praised Berlusconi's role Saturday, telling reporters: "Mr Berlusconi of course wanted to have this conclusion and he worked hard to get it, and we would like to thank him for that."

The incident involving Berlusconi -- Italy's second-richest man, a media magnate and owner of football club AC Milan -- comes hard on the heels of his antics at the Group of 20 summit on Thursday in London, when he played the clown in a group photo that made front pages worldwide.

Rasmussen was also involved in another notorious incident, when Berlusconi described him as "the most handsome prime minister in Europe" and quipped that he might "introduce him to my wife."

Merkel has already found herself on the receiving end of his disdain for diplomatic niceties when he playfully hid and jumped out to surprise the chancellor in Trieste, northern Italy.

And it is not just harmless gaffes occasionally brightening up otherwise earnest summits.

Shortly after Obama's election in November, Berlusconi described the first black US president as "young, handsome and even tanned," in what he later termed an "affectionate" remark.

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