Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi whipped up new political controversy by describing former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as a benevolent leader with no blood on his hands.
In an interview published on Thursday, Berlusconi told two British journalists there was no comparison between deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Mussolini.
When asked by Britain's Spectator magazine and Italy's La Voce di Romagna newspaper if the former fascist dictator was "benign", Berlusconi replied: "Yes".
Never killed anyone
He went on to say: "Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini sent people on holiday in confinement." Few historians would agree with the Italian PM.
One Mussolini biographer, Richard Bosworth, estimates at least one million people died as a result of his 20-year rule, with massacres of Libyans, Ethiopians, inhabitants of the ex-Yugoslavia and Italian Jews.
And Ethiopia specialist Professor James McCann of Boston University commented: “Mussolini never killed anyone like Hitler never killed anyone.”
Mussolini authorised the use of
poison gas in Italy's invasion
Amos Luzzatto, the President of the union of Italian Jewish communities, told journalists the PM’s comments caused profound pain – nearly 6000 Italian Jews died due to the fascist dictator’s policies.
Pierluigi Castagnetti, parliamentary party leader of the centre-left Margherita party, said the prime minister's remarks were "incredible and shocking".
The row follows a long line of controversies sparked by the outspoken prime minister, the acting president of the European Union until the end of the year.
PM promises more
Earlier this summer he created a diplomatic storm when he compared a German lawmaker in the European parliament to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Last week he was quoted as saying that Italy's magistrates were "mentally disturbed".
He told reporters this week that he only said what other people thought, even if it wasn't politically correct: "I like provoking reactions ... I'll continue to be true to myself".