Premier Enrico Letta has won a confidence vote in the Italian Senate after Silvio Berlusconi delivered an about-face and announced he would support the government.

With a few dozen votes still being counted, Letta had more than 230 "yes" votes in the 321-member Senate, far more than he needed to keep his 5 month old coalition alive.

Berlusconi said on Wednesday that having listened to Letta's speech promising tax cuts and economic and judicial reform, "we have decided, not without some internal strife, to support the government."

Italians are crying out that they cannot take any more blood in the arena

Enrico Letta, Italian PM

His words, greeted by widespread surprise, appear to put an end to the political crisis that began after Berlusconi ordered five of his ministers on Saturday to withdraw from the cabinet.

Several key figures from the People of Freedom party (PDL) had broken ranks with him after that move. A letter doing the rounds in the Senate just before Berlusconi spoke had 23 signatures of PDL senators willing to defy their leader, according to AFP news agency.

Together with votes from four rebels of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, this would have been sufficient for Letta to win a majority even without Berlusconi's support.

"Italians are crying out that they cannot take any more blood in the arena, with politicians who slit each other's throats and then nothing changes," said Letta.

Berlusconi had only on Tuesday rallied his supporters to vote against the government.

"Despite the risks, I have decided to put an end to the Letta government," Berlusconi had said in a letter to the Catholic magazine Tempi.

Tensions within the coalition have spiked since Italy's top court upheld a tax fraud conviction against Berlusconi in August, which could see him ejected from the Senate later this month and barred from taking part in the next elections.

Source: Agencies