MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday praised a historian whose comments about the killers of a prominent industrialist in the 1970s sparked an angry response from a top business lobby and other corporate leaders.
Last week, Pedro Salmeron, head of the National Institute of Historical Studies of the Revolutions of Mexico (INEHRM), described the left-wing guerrillas who fatally shot Eugenio Garza Sada in 1973 as "courageous youths" in a blog post.
Garza, an 81-year-old businessman from the northern city of Monterrey, was killed along with several others when resisting a failed kidnapping attempt by members of a group known as the Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre (September 23 Communist League).
The Business Coordinating Council (CCE), the most prominent corporate lobby in Mexico, accused Salmeron of being an apologist for violence, and urged him to say he was sorry.
Others said Salmeron, who in his post also drew attention to Garza's personal modesty and his contributions to Mexican education, should be fired. The INEHRM issued an apology and Salmeron resigned over the weekend.
Asked to comment on the controversy at his regular morning news conference, Lopez Obrador, a veteran leftist, said he was very sorry that Salmeron had stepped down, describing him as one of Mexico's best historians and an "extraordinary intellectual."
Still, Lopez Obrador applauded Salmeron's decision to resign, saying it had left critics of the government "without arguments," accusing them of trying to exploit the controversy.
"We need to avoid confrontation," he said. "Our adversaries, the conservatives, who are morally defeated, are looking for all our possible faults or mistakes, because they want to articulate themselves, to group, they want to form a reactionary group."
Lopez Obrador argues that the chronic poverty, inequality and violence plaguing Mexico are the result of years of "neo-liberal" rule by a corrupt economic and political elite.
Tensions between him and business leaders have never been far from the surface in his almost 10-month-old administration.
Asked whether the words used by Salmeron to describe Garza's killers had been ill-chosen, Lopez Obrador said: "The expression was considered to be not appropriate, one word, 'courageous youths,' and he too offers reasoning on this ... but the best thing is to avoid confrontation."
His comments came the same day the government offered a formal apology to a former member of the Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre for rights abuses she suffered four decades ago during Mexico's so-called dirty war against left-wing groups.
Interior Minister Olga Sanchez made the apology to Marta Alicia Camacho, who in August 1977 was arrested and tortured by security forces along with her husband in northwestern Mexico.
Camacho, who was heavily pregnant at the time of her arrest, survived the ordeal, but her husband was killed and his body never recovered, according to the Interior Ministry.
Hundreds of people disappeared in the dirty war, a crackdown lasting years, which is widely held to have peaked in the 1970s.
(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Peter Cooney)