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ITALIAN EX-PREMIER IS INDICTED ON BRIBERY CHARGES

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In a blow to his political ambitions, former Premier Silvio Berlusconi was indicted Saturday on charges he bribed tax auditors at the company that made him rich, then dragged down his government.

The millionaire tycoon joins a long roster of political heavyweights ordered to trial on corruption charges. But Berlusconi is the first among the new order that rose as scandals toppled the old power brokers.Berlusconi, who did not attend the hearing, denounced the decision by Judge Fabio Paparella as a political maneuver to derail his comeback and predicted the case will fall apart.

"My hands are clean," said Berlusconi, a comment directed at the "Clean Hands" anti-corruption team that led the investigation into alleged bribe-paying at the Fininvest SpA media and retail giant.

Berlusconi and 10 others are accused of taking part in an exchange of bribes for favorable audits by government tax inspectors.

The others indicted include five tax inspectors and five Fininvest executives, including Berlusconi's younger brother Paolo and Fininvest tax official Salvatore Sciascia.

Trial was set for Jan. 17 in Milan - a little more than a year after Berlusconi was first questioned by magistrates about the alleged $237,000 in payoffs.

If convicted, the defendants could face one to three years in jail. In Italy, however, cases can drag on for years because of automatic appeal rules.

The indictment marks the low point of Berlusconi's astonishing rise and equally dramatic crash.

Berlusconi's coalition dominated parliamentary elections in March 1994 just three months after he entered politics, tapping into the spirit of reform after magistrates exposed deep-rooted corruption and power abuse among the politicians who led Italy for five decades.

For a few months, Berlusconi soared. In November, a formal notice of investigation in the bribery case was announced while he hosted an international anti-Mafia conference - covered by the world media. By late December, the coalition was beyond repair because of feuds over his vast business ties.

He has clamored for his successor, Premier Lamberto Dini, to step down and call elections. But the indictment may trip up Berlusconi's political future and deprive his party, Forza Italy (Let's Go, Italy), of its celebrated leader.

Berlusconi holdings also include three nationwide television stations, Italy's largest retail chain and its top-selling news magazine.

Berlusconi said prosecutors "in no way" could link him to alleged payoffs because he has no knowledge of transactions by executives or employees of Milan-based Fininvest.

Ten other tax inspectors agreed to plea bargains for reduced sentences.