Blunkett attacks Berlusconi over 'offensive' tirade

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The Independent Online

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, launched a bitter attack on Silvio Berlusconi yesterday while the Italian Prime Minister apologised for his comment that the West was "superior" to Islamic states.

Mr Blunkett said Mr Berlusconi's comments were "offensive" and put at risk the carefully constructed coalition of nations against terrorism. In remarks that had the clear approval of Tony Blair, Mr Blunkett said Mr Berlusconi's part in the alliance had been damaged by his "inappropriate" outburst.

Mr Berlusconi triggered outrage when he said on Wednesday that Western civilisation was superior to Islamic culture because it had guaranteed respect for human, political and religious rights.

"We must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and, in contrast with Islamic countries, respect for religious and political rights, a system that has as its values understanding of diversity and tolerance," he told a news conference in Berlin.

Mr Berlusconi later told Italy's upper house of parliament that his remarks were taken out of context, and he meant no offence. "An artificial controversy has blown up based on nothing and fed by irresponsible comments from the opposition," Mr Berlusconi said. "I'm sorry that a few words dragged out of the general context, badly interpreted, have offended the sensibility of my Arab and Muslim friends."

Egypt, a key coalition member, warned yesterday that it wanted clarification of the remarks from the Italians. And Iran attacked Mr Berlusconi as "ignorant" and "irresponsible".

Mr Blunkett told BBC Radio 4's The World At One programme that Mr Berlusconi's comments risked fracturing the consensus being built up by the United States and Britain since the New York and Washington attacks. "It is clear that Berlusconi's remarks were offensive and offence has been taken. They were inappropriate in terms of the way in which they affect the consensus across the world in the face of terrorism and they were culturally inaccurate," he said.

"So on those three counts, I hope he will be able to clarify his position in order to be a constructive part of the consensus to bring about justice by tackling the terrorist rather than falling out among ourselves."

Senior Downing Street insiders privately referred to Mr Berlusconi as a "moron" after his remarks, but Mr Blunkett is the first British minister to go on record attacking the Italian leader.

Mr Blair, at a Downing Street news conference yesterday with British Muslim leaders, said he could not respond to Mr Berlusconi's comments because he had not had a chance to examine them.

He said that "each leader must make their remarks in their own way", triggering criticism that he was refusing to condemn Mr Berlusconi.

But Mr Blunkett made clear that the Prime Minister had not seen the remarks and said it was "ridiculous" to expect him to be forthright about them.

However, the new determination by the Government to distance itself from Mr Berlusconi was not echoed by Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the secretary general of Nato.

Speaking in Rome, Lord Robertson said the comments had been "completely misunderstood" and would not jeopardise the coalition.