European elections: Italy's Grillo savages left and right

Beppe Grillo speaks on Italian TV with a portrait of Silvio Berlusconi on a giant screen behind him, 19 May Beppe Grillo speaking on Italian TV with a portrait of Silvio Berlusconi on a giant screen behind him

With tension building in Italy ahead of Sunday's European vote, the leading figures in the campaign have been launching increasingly venomous attacks on one another.

Even Silvio Berlusconi's dog - a poodle called Dudu - has found himself caught in the cross-fire.

He's a fluffy, yapping, bouncing beast who is the subject of much affection at home.

But the leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, loathes Dudu. He said he would like to see him subjected to scientific experimentation - vivisection.

The Five Star Movement is led by comedian turned politician Beppe Grillo

But even the forthright Mr Grillo seemed to sense that this was going a bit far.

He retracted his remark, saying that actually he would prefer to see Dudu's owner subjected to vivisection.

Mr Berlusconi has hit back. He described Mr Grillo as the most dangerous type of populist, likening him to Robespierre, Stalin and Pol Pot. Then he got really personal.

He said Mr Grillo was a man who had managed to avoid prison despite killing three of his friends.

This was a reference to Mr Grillo's conviction for manslaughter in 1980. He had been at the wheel of a jeep when there was an accident.

'Clown' talk

And the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, has not been left out of the bitter exchanges.

Mr Grillo routinely refers to him as the "little moron".

The BBC Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman questions Mr Berlusconi on claims he used an offensive term to refer to German Chancellor Angela Merkel

He portrays the prime minister as nothing more than the tool of an utterly corrupt establishment.

Mr Renzi, he says, is about to be buried by an avalanche of Five Star votes and when he loses, the establishment will come after him and make him vanish.

To describe this process, Mr Grillo used a particularly chilling mafiosi term, lupara bianca (literally meaning "white shotgun", it refers to a murder where the victim's body is deliberately hidden).

Mr Renzi made clear that he saw that sort of language as unacceptable.

He said Europe deserved more sober, serious debate. Referring to Mr Grillo's past as a stand-up comedian, he said that this was no time to send in the clowns.

The last polls published suggested that Mr Renzi's Democratic Party was ahead on around 30%. And they put Mr Grillo's Five Star Movement on about 25%, pushing Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia into third place.

But the pollsters failed to gauge the full strength of the Five Star support at last year's general election and there is a widespread feeling that the race might be closer than the numbers suggest.

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