By Manuela D'Alessandro
MILAN (Reuters) - Milan magistrates ordered police on Monday to search for a Moroccan nightclub dancer at the center of a sex trial involving Silvio Berlusconi, now seeking a fifth term as prime minister in an election next year, after she failed to show up in court.
The incident, two days after Berlusconi announced he was planning to run in an election expected in February, came as a reminder of the sex scandals that plagued his last government and precipitated his demise.
Karima El Mahroug, better known by her stage name of "Ruby the Heartstealer", was due to testify on Monday but did not provide any valid justification for her absence, prosecutor Ilda Boccassini said in court.
El Mahroug's lawyer said she did not know where her client was.
Boccassini accused Berlusconi's lawyers of deliberately delaying the trial, where the former premier is accused of paying for sex with El Mahroug when she was under 18, to avoid a verdict in the middle of the election campaign.
Eighteen is the legal age limit for prostitution in Italy.
"This is a strategy to delay the proceedings while the election campaign gets under way," Boccassini said in court.
Berlusconi's lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, in turn said the prosecutors were trying to hasten a verdict before the election, now expected in February rather than March or April after Prime Minister Mario Monti said at the weekend he would resign early.
"It is the magistrates who have started the election campaign," he told reporters outside the court.
The presiding judge in the case ordered police to search for El Mahroug "throughout the national territory" and the trial was adjourned to December 17. However, El Mahroug's lawyer, Paola Boccardi, said she did not know whether Ruby would show up then.
"I tried reaching her but her cellphone is off. She sent me a text saying she was abroad but I have no information about this trip and I don't know when she will be back," she said.
El Mahroug's testimony in court has been requested by Berlusconi's defense team. Italian media said a few days before Monday's hearing that Ruby had suddenly decided to travel to the United States.
A verdict, which could deal a blow to Berlusconi's comeback hopes were he to be found guilty, is expected early next year.
The trial, in which dozens of aspiring showgirls have described the so-called "Bunga Bunga" parties at Berlusconi's residences, is the most sensational of Berlusconi's legal cases and has been getting huge media attention in Italy and abroad.
Berlusconi is also accused of abusing his powers when he was still prime minister to have El Mahroug released from police custody when she was briefly held over theft allegations.
Berlusconi has denied any wrongdoing in the case, accusing left-wing magistrates of waging a politically motivated campaign against him.
The 76-year-old billionaire, whose sex scandal precipitated his political demise just over a year ago, said last week he would seek re-election after his party abruptly withdrew support from Monti's government.
(additional reporting by Sara Rossi; Writing by Antonella Ciancio; Editing by Silvia Aloisi and Sophie Hares)