April 4, 2009 / 9:45 AM / 10 years ago

Berlusconi skips NATO ceremonies to talks to Turkey

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi threw out the protocol rule book on Saturday, missing NATO ceremonies and failing to greet his hosts because he was so engrossed in a mobile phone call.

A source in Berlusconi’s office said the Italian leader had been doing NATO business, trying to convince Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to accept the European candidate for the next head of the military alliance.

His lengthy intervention failed to achieve a breakthrough, a senior Turkish government official said.

Berlusconi was speaking intensely into his mobile phone when he arrived for the start of a second day of a NATO summit. Instead of walking up the red carpet to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel he carried on his conversation.

A bemused-looking Merkel continued to welcome other arriving leaders, shrugging her shoulders at one point.

She eventually gave up on Berlusconi and led the other dignitaries across a footbridge over the Rhine river, where French President Nicolas Sarkozy met them half-way in a choreographed reception symbolising unity within the alliance.

Berlusconi remained on the German side of the river, missing a group photograph and a minute’s silence in honourof NATO soldiers killed in action. When he finally joined the other 27 heads of state and government, he appeared to explain to Merkel and Sarkozy what had delayed him for so long.

RAISING EYEBROWS

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the front-runner to replace the outgoing NATO secretary-general, but Turkey has objected, criticising the Dane’s handling of a row over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that offended Muslims.

“From the moment Prime Minister Berlusconi woke up this morning he has been in direct contact with Prime Minister Erdogan, trying to find a solution to this problem,” a source close to the Italian leader said.

Erdogan is back home in Turkey while President Abdullah Gul is representing the country at the NATO gathering.

It was the second time in a week that Berlusconi had raised eyebrows.

During a group photo with G20 leaders in London on Wednesday, he appeared to startle Britain’s Queen Elizabeth by shouting out to the U.S. president: “Mr Obama! It’s Berlusconi.”

The Queen turned in apparent annoyance, raising a gloved hand, but Buckingham played down the exchange, saying “there was no offence taken on either side.”

Italian press had a field day over the incident, with La Stampa newspaper saying the prime minister had an “unrivalled ability to make a fool of himself.”

Berlusconi said during the NATO summit he was fed up with the way the media treated him and promised a news blackout.

“I will no longer talk to you. I am working for Italy while you work against it. I will no longer give news conferences,” ANSA newsagency quoted him as saying late Friday night.

Additional reporting by Francesca Piscioneri; Editing by Timothy Heritage

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