By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi repeated accusations on Wednesday that he had been forced out of office at the height of the euro zone crisis in 2011 as the result of a plot by European Union officials.
Berlusconi's comments followed the publication of a book by former U.S. treasury secretary Timothy Geithner which suggested that the U.S. government had been asked to help force Berlusconi to resign as the crisis escalated in late 2011.
"At one point that fall, a few European officials approached us with a scheme to try to force Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi out of power; they wanted us to refuse to support IMF loans to Italy until he was gone," Geithner wrote in his book, "Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises", extracts from which appeared in the Italian press this week.
"We told the President about this surprising invitation, but as helpful as it would have been to have better leadership in Europe, we couldn't get involved in a scheme like that," he wrote. "'We can't have his blood on our hands,' I said."
Berlusconi resigned in November 2011 after months of tension on financial markets led to fears that investors could refuse to buy Italian bonds, sending the euro zone's third-largest economy into default and breaking the single currency apart.
The 77-year-old media tycoon, currently serving a community service sentence after being convicted of tax fraud last year, said the book showed there had been a "clear violation of democratic rules and an attack on the sovereignty of our country".
"The plot is an extremely serious piece of news which confirms what I've been saying for some time," he told Rai state television in an interview.
Berlusconi, the leader of Italy's main center-right party, has frequently accused European authorities and Italy's head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano, of mounting a "coup" to remove him from office in 2011.
He made similar accusations earlier this year following the publication of a book based on interviews with his successor Mario Monti and others, which said Monti had been sounded out as a potential replacement premier months before Berlusconi's government fell.
"FREELY AND RESPONSIBLY"
On Wednesday, Berlusconi repeated accusations that Napolitano had been in contact with Monti, the former European Commissioner appointed to lead the technocrat government that succeeded Berlusconi, well before the final crisis.
Napolitano issued a statement on Wednesday saying he was unaware of any pressure exerted on Berlusconi, who resigned after a split in the center-right camp left him without a reliable parliamentary majority.
He said Berlusconi's resignation had been offered "freely and responsibly" and that it had been caused solely by "Italian political and parliamentary events".
Berlusconi has stepped up his attacks on Brussels and euro zone policy makers during the campaign for the May 25 European Parliament elections, encouraged by opinion polls that show rising dissatisfaction with the EU.
With less than two weeks to go, his Forza Italia party is in third place in opinion polls with about 20 percent, behind Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's center-left Democratic Party, on around 34 percent, and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, on about 25.
Many of his supporters remain convinced that his removal was engineered by foreign powers.
Monti's government imposed a series of austerity measures aimed at restoring market confidence but failed to halt a steep rise in Italy's public debt or restore growth, and ended its term deeply unpopular with ordinary voters.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Kevin Liffey)