Manila: Leading Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday finally apologised for his apparent joke about the rape and murder of an Australian missionary after initially sneering at the widespread outrage he sparked.
Duterte, longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao, told cheering supporters last week that when he saw a female Australian lay minister who was raped and murdered in a Philippine prison riot in 1989, his initial reaction was: "she was so beautiful. I thought, the mayor should have been first."
He initially refused to apologise despite widespread condemnation by rival candidates and the public.
However on Tuesday he issued a statement saying: "I apologise to the Filipino people for my recent remarks in a rally. There was no intention of disrespecting our women and those who have been victims of this horrible crime."
Duterte, who has previously boasted of extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals, defended himself, saying: "I will not apologise for the things I`ve done to protect our people, especially the weak and defenceless, from crime."
Many Filipinos have embraced Duterte for his profanity-laced speeches and his promise to get tough on crime. He has vowed to oversee the mass killing of criminals if elected.
On Tuesday, respected research agency Pulse Asia released the results of a survey taken from April 5-10, showing Duterte well ahead of other presidential candidates with 32 percent of respondents compared to 25 percent from second-placed Senator Grace Poe.
The survey was conducted before the furore over Duterte`s rape remark.
Pulse Asia president Ronald Holmes said it was hard to tell if the mayor`s statements would change his standing.
"The people who are affected (by his rape jokes) are the ones who do not support Duterte," he told AFP.
He conceded that Duterte`s remarks could "potentially" scare off some voters.
Duterte`s supporters defended him on social media with one saying on Twitter: "at least he is true to himself. The other candidates are just putting up a front."
Duterte has previously been criticised in the devoutly-Catholic Philippines after he called Pope Francis a "son of a whore" for causing traffic jams during his visit last year.
He later apologised for the remark.