An Italian appeals court has overturned former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's conviction on charges of abuse of office and paying for sex with a minor.

The Milan court unexpectedly threw out the guilty verdict handed down by a lower tribunal last year.

The lower tribunal had sentenced Mr Berlusconi to seven years in jail.

Mr Berlusconi was accused of paying for sex with former nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug when she was under 18.

She is better known under her stage name "Ruby the Heart stealer".

The incident was alleged to have taken place at his "bunga bunga" parties at his home near Milan.

He was also accused of abusing his authority to get her released from police custody over unrelated theft accusations.

The verdict came as a huge relief to the embattled 77 year-old.

He has suffered a series of reverses, including being forced to serve a one-year community service sentence in an old people's home after a conviction for tax fraud last year.
"I am deeply moved," Berlusconi said in a statement afterthe ruling. "Only those who have been close to me over the years know what I have suffered because of this unfair and disgraceful accusation."
His lawyer Franco Coppi said the verdict "goes beyond our rosiest expectations."
The four-times prime minister, still the most influential politician on the centre right despite bitter infighting in his Forza Italia party, had always denied the charges, accusing the Milan magistrates of hounding him for political reasons.
Renato Brunetta, Forza Italia's floor leader in the lower house of parliament, said the verdict confirmed Mr Berlusconi's innocence completely.

He said that the party's agreement with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to pass a series of constitutional reforms would stand.

Had the verdict gone the other way, many commentators had suggested the accord could fall through.