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Protesters in Hungary clash with police

Hundreds of anti-government protesters clashed with police in the Hungarian capital Saturday, as they sought to disrupt commemorations of the failed 1848 war of independence.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hundreds of anti-government protesters clashed with police in the Hungarian capital Saturday, as they sought to disrupt commemorations of the failed 1848 war of independence against the ruling Habsburgs.

Members of the Hungarian Self-defense Movement and other right-wing radical groups were trying to reach the Palace of Arts, near the Danube River on the city's south side, where Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was taking part in a commemoration event.

Several of Hungary's national holidays over the past 18 months have been marred by protests against the unpopular Gyurcsany, who misled the public about the state of the economy.

Marching along one of Budapest's main ring roads, the protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police, who fired tear gas grenades to try to control the crowd. Police were able to disperse most of the crowd several blocks before they reached the Palace of Arts, but smaller groups of rioters continued to prowl the area.

Hungarian media said protesters also attacked a journalist covering the violence and that the clothes of two protesters caught fire after being hit with a Molotov cocktail thrown at police.

At least 14 people were detained, several police were injured and a number of police vehicles were hit by the fire bombs, Hir TV reported.

Metal barriers around Parliament
Earlier, dozens of right-wing radicals pelted Budapest authorities and police with rocks, eggs and vegetables during one of the memorial events, despite tight security.

Police set up metal barriers around Parliament and several other areas where official events were held and people were allowed near only after individual security checks. Traffic was diverted from the events and several of the bridges that span the Danube River connecting Buda and Pest were closed to private vehicles.

"The government has to go. They are ruining Hungary," said Peter Rabai, a 53-year-old salesman attending one of the rallies.

Calls for Gyurcsany's resignation have intensified since the stunning success of a referendum last Sunday that repealed three of his economic reform measures.

Economic protest
More than 80 percent of the voters participating said they were against fees for doctor's visits, hospital stays and university tuition. Turnout was slightly more than 50 percent, an unprecedented figure for a referendum in Hungary.

Despite Gyurcsany's rock-bottom popularity figures — his approval rating stands at 19 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll — the two parties in the government coalition have continued to support him.

Analysts, however, say the pace of the reforms meant to cut what has been the European Union's highest budget deficits in the past few years could slow as the 2010 parliamentary elections near.

Fidesz, the main center-right opposition party, which initiated the referendum, held a peaceful rally remembering the events of 1848 and speakers compared the current government to the authorities who served the Habsburgs' interests 160 years ago.

"Since (the referendum), we know that Hungary deserves better," former Prime Minister Viktor Orban told tens of thousands of supporters, describing the March 9 vote as "nonviolent, constitutional, mob law."

Among the groups holding smaller protests around the city was the Hungarian Guard, whose red-and-white striped flag and black uniforms mimic Hungary's fascist movements of the 1940s, critics say.

In September 2006, weeks of protests and several nights of rioting broke out after the prime minister was heard admitting on a leaked recording that he had lied for months about the economy to win the April 2006 elections.

On Oct. 23, 2006, the 50th anniversary of the 1956 anti-Soviet revolution, hundreds of people were injured, including many innocent bystanders, as police cracked down on the protesters.