Low-cost airline Ryanair has flown into a new publicity storm by using a photo of a controversial and outspoken Italian politician to promote its flights.

Italian newspapers on Saturday published angry reactions by the government to the ad displaying an old photo of Reforms Minister Umberto Bossi raising his middle finger during a speech.

The ad's text suggests the vulgar gesture is directed at Italian passengers, who, it alleges, must suffer high ticket fares and strikes because the government continues to support failing state carrier Alitalia.

Infrastructure and Transport Minister Altero Matteoli called the ad "vulgar and offensive" and demanded an apology from the Irish carrier. The ad could still be seen Saturday on the home page of Ryanair's Italian Web site.

Bossi is the firebrand leader of the Northern League, an autonomist and anti-immigrant party that is a key ally in Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government.

The 2006 photo showed his reaction to suggestions he should retire after suffering a stroke.

But Ryanair headlined its ad: "Minister Bossi to Italian passengers." The caption goes on to say that "the government supports the high fares of Alitalia, it supports the frequent strikes of Alitalia, it doesn't care about Italian passengers."

Roberto Castelli, transport undersecretary and a Northern League politician, said the ad was a "political message" and indicated measures could be taken against Ryanair.

"I will verify if this position is compatible with the activity of a company operating at Italian airports," Castelli said in quotes carried by leading Italian dailies Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica.

On Saturday Ryanair stood by its ad.

"It is not often that we see government ministers displaying their views so graphically," Stephen McNamara, Ryanair's Head of Communications, said in a statement. "We felt that the image was also a reflection of the complete disregard the Italian government shows taxpayers by continually bailing out Alitalia with never-ending government subsidies."

Earlier this year, the money-losing Alitalia received a $4.5 million loan from the government to stave off bankruptcy. Ryanair and other Alitalia rivals have said the loan is illegal, and EU regulators are probing whether it violates competition rules on state aid.

Ryanair's bold-faced advertising campaigns have caused trouble in the past.

In May, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, won a lawsuit against the carrier, which was ordered to pay some $94,000 for using a photo of the couple in an ad without permission.