LONDON Vladimir Putin is the world leader who is most admired by the head of Britain's anti-European Union party because of the Russian president's "brilliant" handling of the Syria crisis, Nigel Farage said in an interview published on Monday.
When asked which leader he had most esteem for, Farage told the GQ magazine: "As an operator, but not as a human being, I would say Putin."
"The way he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant. Not that I approve of him politically. How many journalists in jail now?" the head of Britain's UK Independence Party (UKIP) was quoted as saying.
Putin has kept Syrian President President Bashar al-Assad in power, repeatedly blocked U.N. attempts to condemn him and supplied arms for the government side in a civil war in which over 100,000 people have died.
Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who last week went head-to-head with Farage in a televised policy debate about Europe, heavily criticised Farage's comments.
"I just think it's utterly grotesque that Nigel Farage apparently admires... Vladimir Putin, who has been the chief sponsor and protector of one of the most brutal dictators of the face of the planet, President Assad," Clegg told reporters.
Farage, a former commodities trader who revels in stoking controversy, has lambasted the EU for its handling of the Ukraine crisis, saying the bloc had provoked Russia into intervention in its neighbour and had "blood on its hands".
Those comments also drew censure from Britain's political establishment, which accused Farage of being an apologist for Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea Russian-majority region after mass protests toppled Ukraine's pro-Russian president.
Western countries say Russia's annexation of Crime is illegal under international law and have imposed punitive sanctions on Moscow.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and William James, editing by Mark Heinrich)