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US candidate urged to apologise after alleged attack on reporter

US House speaker Paul Ryan has called for the Republican candidate in Montana's congressional election to apologise after allegedly attacking a reporter for The Guardian.

Mr Ryan said the incident involving Greg Gianforte and reporter Ben Jacobs was "wrong and should not happen".

Mr Ryan would not say if Gianforte should be barred from joining the House Republican conference if he wins Thursday's election.

He said: "I'm going to let the people of Montana decide who they want as their representative."

The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, congressman Steve Stivers, also weighed in, saying: "From what I know of Greg Gianforte, this was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes."

Gianforte was charged with misdemeanour assault after grabbing a reporter by the neck and throwing him to the ground.

If convicted, he would face a maximum fine of 500 US dollars (£385) or six months in jail.

Voters are deciding in the special election whether Republican Gianforte or Democrat Rob Quist will fill the US House seat left vacant when Ryan Zinke resigned to join President Donald Trump's cabinet as secretary of the interior.

Gianforte, who has tried to align himself with Mr Trump, defended himself as the criminal charge was announced, saying the reporter was being aggressive and grabbed him by the wrist in their exchange at his campaign office.

Mr Quist has declined to comment on the events.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi called Gianforte "a wannabe Trump".

"That's his model - Donald Trump," she said.

It is not clear how the incident will affect the race, which was partly seen as a referendum on Mr Trump's presidency, in part because more than a third of the state's registered voters cast absentee ballots before polls opened on Thursday.

Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin made the announcement shortly before midnight on Wednesday in a written statement, about six hours after the attack on Mr Jacobs.

The statement added that the reporter's injuries did not meet the legal definition of felony assault.

Gianforte was in a private office preparing for an interview with Fox News when Mr Jacobs came in without permission, campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon said.

The Fox News crew watched in astonishment as, after Mr Jacobs pressed him on the Republican health care bill, "Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him," Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna wrote in an article.

She added that Gianforte then began to punch Mr Jacobs.

In an audio recording posted by The Guardian, the reporter asks the congressional candidate about the Republicans' health care bill, which was just evaluated hours earlier by the Congressional Budget Office.

"We'll talk to you about that later," Gianforte says on the recording, referring Mr Jacobs to a spokesman.

When Mr Jacobs says that there won't be time, Gianforte says "Just..." and there is a crashing sound.

Gianforte then shouts: "The last guy who came here did the same thing," and a shaken-sounding Mr Jacobs tells the candidate he just body-slammed him.

"Get the hell out of here," Gianforte says.

The Gianforte campaign released a statement blaming the incident on Mr Jacobs.

It contends that the reporter "aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg's face and began asking badgering questions" before being asked to leave.

Gianforte asked Mr Jacobs to lower a phone that was being used as an audio recorder, then tried to grab it, the campaign said.

Mr Jacobs then grabbed Gianforte's wrist and both fell to the ground, Mr Scanlon said.

The 45-second recording does not contain a request from Gianforte that Mr Jacobs should lower his phone.

Ms Acuna, the Fox News reporter, wrote that "at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte".

The sheriff's office said Gianforte has until June 7 to appear in court on the charge.

Mr Jacobs told ABC's Good Morning America on Thursday that he never touched Gianforte. He said of the politician's account: "The only thing that is factually correct ... is my name and place of employment."

Three of Montana's biggest newspapers have pulled their endorsements of Gianforte but did not endorse an opponent.

"We are also sick and tired - of Gianforte's incessant attacks on the free press," the Helena Independent Record wrote.

Gianforte, a wealthy businessman, lost a race against Montana's Democratic governor in November while Mr Trump won the state by 20 points.

In the congressional race, Gianforte has been boosted by visits from vice president Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr.

Hours before the assault, the Gianforte campaign sent out a last-minute fundraising appeal to its supporters, saying the outcome "will determine whether we pass Donald Trump's America First agenda or if the fake news media and the national Democrats will win, keeping Obama's reckless policies in place".

Democrats were hoping an upset would send a message to the Republicans that Mr Trump's souring approval ratings could damage their political fortunes even in deep red states.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that it would launch as many Facebook ads as possible about the assault, targeting Montana Democrats who might not otherwise vote on Thursday. The Committee has called for Gianforte to quit the race.

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