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JOHANNESBURG, Sept 17 (Reuters) - The chairman of South African insurer Old Mutual, Trevor Manuel, on Tuesday apologised for comments he made last week in reference to the judge presiding over its court battle with fired chief executive Peter Moyo.
Old Mutual has been locked in a bitter and damaging dispute with Moyo since it suspended him in May in relation to a conflict of interest.
It fired him a few weeks later, but he was reinstated by the courts in an embarrassing outcome for the insurer, which sacked him for a second time last month.
After months of public fighting that have knocked Old Mutual's reputation, Manuel said during a press conference last week that "difficulty" arises when a board could be overturned "by a single individual who happens to wear a robe".
His words drew criticism from Moyo's legal team and some media, and the company said in a statement on Tuesday that Manuel had withdrawn his comment.
"It was never my intention to show disrespect to the learned judge or his judgement," Manuel said. "I accept that my language was wholly inappropriate to express my disagreement with the decision and sincerely regret the manner in which I did so."
The battle with Moyo has shaken some shareholders' confidence in one of South Africa's oldest companies just as it tries to return to its roots as an African financial services group after breaking up an international conglomerate structure.
Repeated losses in the courts, concerns that Moyo's departure was sloppily handled and the drawn-out public fight helped to knock almost 20% off the insurer's share price at its peak, though the stock has since recovered much of that loss.
Old Mutual has been granted leave to appeal Moyo's temporary reinstatement.
However, it still faces two contempt of court applications brought by Moyo after it refused to allow him back to work pending the appeal process - a stance Judge Brian Mashile, who has so far ruled on the case, has said Old Mutual should not have taken.
Old Mutual shares were down 1.3% at 1450 GMT. (Reporting by Emma Rumney; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Jan Harvey)