Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro apologised Tuesday after an interview in which he talked about visiting a group of underage Venezuelan girls at home sparked controversy and drew accusations of "paedophilia" from opponents.
Fighting for re-election in an October 30 run-off against veteran leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the far-right president has been swept up in a firestorm for his remarks on the Venezuelan teens, who he implied were prostitutes.
"If my words, which were taken out of context in bad faith, were somehow misinterpreted or caused discomfort to our Venezuelan sisters, I apologise," Bolsonaro said in a video posted online.
"My commitment has always been to better welcome and assist all people fleeing dictatorships anywhere in the world," he added, flanked by his wife and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó's representative in Brazil.
Bolsonaro recognises Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate leader, rather than socialist leader, President Nicolás Maduro.
The controversy erupted Friday when Bolsonaro spoke in a YouTube interview about his encounter with "three or four very pretty 14- or 15-year-olds" last year in a poor Brasilia neighbourhood.
"There was a vibe between us. I turned around. 'Can I come in your house?' I went inside. There were 15 or 20 girls [in the house], all Venezuelans aged 14, 15, getting ready on a Saturday. Why? To earn a living," he said.
The story appeared intended as one of Bolsonaro's frequent warnings that Brazil will suffer the same fate as crisis-torn Venezuela if it elects Lula.
But Bolsonaro found himself forced on the defensive after Lula allies attacked the comments as "depraved" and the hashtag #Bolsonaropedofilo (Bolsonaro paedophile) went viral online.
His campaign succeeded Sunday in a petition to electoral authorities to ban a Lula attack ad based on excerpts from the interview. But Bolsonaro said the preceding day had been "the most terrible of my life."
Bolsonaro, who vehemently rejects the opposition's criticisms, said in Tuesday's video his former women's minister, Damares Alves, had "almost immediately" investigated the girls' case and found they were not in fact prostitutes.
He said Alves and First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro had visited the girls Tuesday and "found they were rebuilding their lives [and] even helping other Venezuelan refugees find jobs and integrate" in Brazil, which hosts an estimated 260,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants.
Newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported the Venezuelan teens and their mothers had refused a request from Bolsonaro's campaign to record a video on the president's behalf.