BRUSSELS Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, under fire at home for describing U.S. President-elect Barack Obama as "suntanned," said on Friday he saw no need to apologize.
At a news conference, Berlusconi was brusque with an American journalist who suggested he should say sorry for the remark on Thursday. Visiting Moscow, he described the man elected to be the first black U.S. president as "handsome, young and also suntanned."
His center-left opponents called the comment racist; Berlusconi responded by saying they were "imbeciles without any sense of humor."
At Friday's news conference after a European Union summit, the reporter asked: "Prime Minister, do you realize that your comment on Obama is offensive to the United States? Why don't you apologize?"
Berlusconi responded: "Give me a break! You have just put yourself on that list of people (imbeciles) I mentioned yesterday!"
When the reporter pressed for an answer on why Berlusconi did not deem it necessary to apologize, the prime minister, clearly irritated, said: "Why (should I)? You should apologize to Italy!" He then walked out of the room.
Berlusconi's latest gaffe was on the front pages of most Italian newspapers on Friday.
"Berlusconi never fails to live up to our worst expectations," said an editorial in the Rome daily La Repubblica.
Berlusconi, who prides himself on being a friend of outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush, is famed in diplomatic circles for making sometimes inappropriate quips.
On his first meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2002, Berlusconi complimented him with the words: "Rasmussen is not only a great colleague, he's also the best-looking prime minister in Europe."
He added: "He's so good looking, I'm even thinking of introducing him to my wife."
He sparked a minor diplomatic incident in 2005 by suggesting he had wooed Finnish President Tarja Halonen to ensure her backing for Italy to host the European Food Safety Authority.
"I had to use all my playboy tactics, even if they have not been used for some time," he said, prompting Helsinki to call in the Italian ambassador to explain the comments.
(Writing by Philip Pullella, editing by Mark Trevelyan)