By Alasdair Fotheringham
IVREA, Italy (Reuters) - Italy's Vincenzo Nibali fended off several surprise attacks by his rivals to maintain his grip on the overall lead for a ninth straight day on Tuesday's hilly 16th stage of the Giro d'Italia, won by Spain's Benat Intxausti.
In a fast and frantic finale as the main pack tore down a twisting descent from the third category climb of Andrate, Nibali responded to attacks by 2011 Giro winner Michele Scarponi, fifth overall.
After closing down further challenges by Colombian Rigoberto Uran, third overall, and his compatriot Carlos Alberto Betancur, who leads the best young rider classification, Nibali crossed the finish line in Ivrea in 12th place in a group of 12 riders.
The 28-year-old Sicilian leads by one minute and 26 seconds from Australian Cadel Evans, with Uran in third at two minutes and 46 seconds, while Scarponi moves up to fourth at three minutes and 53 seconds.
"Scarponi went for it and I had to keep him under control," Nibali told reporters, "but this wasn't supposed to be a difficult stage and it turned out being tougher than anybody expected.
"He's clearly come out of (Monday's) rest day feeling ready to go on the warpath.
"It was a very dangerous descent, with rivulets of water in some places and dry in others, so I preferred to be in front anyway, but it was not easy."
With his confidence rising as he dealt with his rivals' attacks, Nibali allowed teammate Tanel Kangert to go for the stage win, but the Estonian was beaten by Spain's Intxausti, who took his Movistar squad's third stage victory in the 2013 Giro.
Poland's Przemyslaw Niemiec was third.
After making a late move with his two rivals, Intxausti said he had let the other two riders take the initiative in the final acceleration before surprising them from behind.
"I kept a cool head, let them do the work, and then with 300 metres to go I thought, 'It's now or never'," Intxausti, who led the Giro for a day earlier in the race, told reporters.
The Basque rider dedicated his first Grand Tour stage win to his friend and team-mate Xavi Tondo, who died in a domestic accident in 2011.
"It's just two days before the anniversary of his death," Intxausti said, "and for sure he would be celebrating it if he were around still."
After Wednesday's flat stage, the Giro tackles its three final mountain stages, with Thursday's uphill time trial followed by two summit finishes deep in the Dolomites.
"I'll be looking to win on all three stages, but if I can only take one, I'll be happy," Nibali said.
"My team (Astana) haven't had a stage win yet, and that's one objective I want to achieve before the finish."
The Giro ends in Brescia on May 26.
(Editing by Stephen Wood)