ROME - Premier Silvio Berlusconi slammed the paparazzi yesterday for taking photos of a New Year's party at his Sardinian home that was attended by an 18-year-old at the heart of a political and personal storm.

At a campaign stop in Bari, the premier also lamented that the scandal was playing out on the front pages of newspapers, saying such personal matters belonged exclusively in the private, family sphere.

"We've really hit bottom with this intrusion into the private lives of everyone," Berlusconi said.

Prosecutors on Saturday seized hundreds of photos taken by a Sardinian photographer of a New Year's party at Berlusconi's villa that was attended by Noemi Letizia and dozens of other young women.

Berlusconi's relationship with Letizia has been the subject of intense speculation ever since the premier's wife, Veronica Lario, cited his presence at Letizia's 18th birthday party in announcing a few weeks ago that she was divorcing the 72-year-old Berlusconi.

The conservative premier has denied any scandalous relationship and said he knows Letizia's father through decades-old Socialist Party circles. He has said he attended the birthday party because he happened to be in Naples that day. His aides have accused the center-left opposition of grabbing onto gossip to try to discredit Berlusconi and his party before European Parliament elections this coming weekend.

Berlusconi said yesterday he had seen the photos of the New Year's party and judged them harmless, but said he moved to have them seized because they violated his privacy.

"No one can accept that a photographer can come outside your home and photograph you inside your home," he said. "Protecting privacy is a fundamental right that is part of the more general right to freedom."

Besides seizing the photos, Rome prosecutors also placed the photographer under investigation for alleged violation of privacy laws and fraud, stemming from his efforts to sell the photos to magazines, news reports said yesterday.

Berlusconi was asked yesterday about another report quoting an ally as saying Lario was the one who broke up the family with a relationship with her bodyguard.

Berlusconi didn't respond directly, saying only that he was saddened that "situations that belong exclusively to a family have been brought to the front pages of newspapers." *