Animal activists stage a protest holding placards displaying pictures of animals and reading "Ban Hunting" in Madrid. Photo: AFP
Spanish King Juan Carlos has apologised for a hunting trip to Botswana that sparked indignation in recession-hit Spain, as he emerged on crutches from hospital after breaking his hip on the visit.
"I am very sorry. I made a mistake and it won't happen again. Thank you for your interest," the 74-year-old monarch said during his televised departure from a Madrid hospital.
Looking serious, the king said he was feeling "much better" after the hip replacement at the capital's USP San Jose Hospital and was looking forward to resuming his official duties.
Doctors discharged the head of state a few hours earlier, saying in a statement that after a "very satisfactory" recovery since Saturday's operation he was now able to get around by himself.
The king, though widely respected for his role in steering the country to democracy after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, was harshly criticised for the hunting trip.
Many were angered by the extravagance of the holiday, coming at a time when millions of Spaniards are suffering in recession, and the fact that he was hunting big game.
Fuelling the scandal, conservative newspaper El Mundo reported on Wednesday that the trip was paid for by a Saudi magnate, Mohamed Eyad Kayali.
Leaders of the two main political parties have refrained from explicitly criticising or defending the king, but newspapers were not so forgiving.
El Mundo branded the trip "irresponsible" and "inopportune" in an economic crisis.
"The sight of a monarch hunting elephants in Africa when the economic crisis in our country is causing so many problems for Spaniards does not set a good example," it said, giving vent to unusual criticism of the king.
"This is something totally new," said Antonio Torres del Moral, an expert on the royalty at Madrid's UNED university.
"To my knowledge, never in our history has there been an episode where the king apologises for his behaviour."