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Theresa May has rebuked Boris Johnson over his claim that Muslim women in burqa resemble letter boxes and bank robbers, urging the former foreign secretary to apologise after he defied an order to do so by Tory chiefs.

The prime minister said she agreed with the Conservative party chairman, Brandon Lewis, that Johnson should say sorry for his remarks, which she acknowledged had caused offence in the Muslim community.

She urged people to be “very careful” about the language they used to discuss sensitive issues such as women wearing the burqa, but stopped short of saying Johnson’s comments were Islamophobic or that he should lose the Tory whip.

Her intervention came as Conservative party chiefs sought to dampen down the Islamophobia row that has re-erupted since Johnson’s remarks in response to Denmark’s introduction of a ban of burqas in public places.

Sidestepping the question of whether the former foreign secretary was Islamophobic, May said: “I have said it’s very clear that anybody who is talking about this needs to think very carefully about the language that they use and the impact that language has had on people, and it is clear that the language that Boris used has offended people.”

May was emphatic that women in the UK ought to be able to choose freely what they wanted to wear. “What is important is do we believe that people have the right to practise their religion, should have the right to choose – in the case of women, and the burqa and the niqab – how they dress,” she said.

“I believe that a woman should have that right. It is absolutely that women should be able to choose how they dress and shouldn’t be told how to do it by other people. And I believe that all of us when we talk about these issues should be very careful about the language that we use.”

May also said: “Some of the terms that Boris used in describing people’s appearance obviously have offended people and so I agree with Brandon Lewis.”

On Tuesday night, Johnson – who is believed to be on holiday in Europe – continued to defy Lewis’s order via Twitter to apologise for his remarks. He is understood to view the instruction as an attempt to shut down debate on a difficult issue that should be tackled head-on.