'It was the drink talking,' claims a rueful Berlusconi

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has apologised to the Jewish community for claiming in an interview with the British press that the dictator Benito Mussolini was "benign" and "killed nobody".

Mr Berlusconi tried to blame his remarks on the two British journalists who interviewed him for deliberately getting him drunk. He claimed that Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator, and Nicholas Farrell, formerly of The Sunday Telegraph and now a columnist with Voce di Romagna, "took advantage of me. They were with me for hours and hours. And that's how it was, at the end of a very long day, in front of a bottle of champagne, you understand."

Mr Johnson retorted: "Il Presidente's memory must be playing him tricks ... Alas, no champagne at all. We were plied with about a gallon of iced tea ... It was always clear that it was an interview."

Mr Farrell, who has recently published a revisionist biography of Mussolini and who describes himself as "a great fan of Berlusconi", also flatly denied Mr Berlusconi's account. "We were drinking iced lemon tea, pints of it, served by him," he told The Independent. "It was informal but it was official. It took months to arrange the interview and there were two tape recorders on the table between us. It was obvious that it was an official interview." Mr Farrell added: "It's such a shame he has told this lie. He's gone down in my estimation."

Italy's Jewish community, which suffered discrimination under the race laws passed by Mussolini in 1938 and lost thousands of members to German concentration camps after the Nazis invaded Italy in 1943, was not satisfied by Mr Berlusconi's apology. Riccardo Pacifici, the community's councillor for external relations, said: "A grand gesture is required [from Mr Berlusconi] to explain his remorse in a clear manner, not only to the Jewish community but to all Italians who have suffered persecution under the Fascist regime." But a spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League, an American group that fights anti-Semitism, said yesterday: "[Mr Berlusconi] has clarified and apologised. There is no problem."

* Italian judges and magistrates staged a symbolic 15-minute strike to protest at being branded insane by Mr Berlusconi. Mr Berlusconi has accused the judiciary of persecuting him.

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