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Clash Mars Hungary Uprising Anniversary

The Associated Press
Monday, October 23, 2006; 9:51 PM

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters who later hijacked two unarmed tanks in violence that marred the 50th anniversary of Hungary's uprising against Soviet rule.

At least 40 people, including some police, were injured, rescue officials said. State news agency MTI reported that police beat some of the protesters _ including women and elderly people _ with rubber batons, and some had head injuries.

In one of the main showdowns on Monday near Deak Square, the city's main subway hub, hundreds of police behind three water cannons slowly advanced on a few hundred rioters. The protesters threw bottles and rocks at the police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets back at them as a police helicopter circled low above the crowd.

Then one of the protesters seized a tank that was part of an exhibit in the square to commemorate the revolution. He drove it among the protesters until he was pulled out by police who rushed the vehicle. A second tank in the exhibit was pushed by the rioters toward the police.

The tanks were powerful symbols of the 1956 revolt. The night the uprising began, Red Army tanks rolled through the streets of Budapest and 12 days later, a blitz led by 4,500 Soviet tanks overran the country.

Most of the protesters were peacefully demanding to be allowed back to Kossuth Square outside parliament where the main commemorations of the 1956 revolution were under way.

Within the crowd, demonstrators held up placards with 7-foot-tall letters spelling out the word "freedom" in Hungarian.

Anti-government protests have been going on since Sept. 17, when Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was heard admitting on a leaked recording that the government had lied about the economy before winning re-election in April.

On Monday, the protesters had gathered in different spots near the center of the city. Some had set up road blocks with garbage cans and threw rocks at the police dressed in riot gear, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them near St. Stephen's Basilica.

At dawn, police had expelled several hundred protesters from Kossuth Square where many had been camping for weeks, demanding the prime minister be dismissed. The government used the square for some of Monday's official memorial events.

The protesters had vowed to stay at Kossuth Square until Gyurcsany was dismissed, but police pushed them out of the square after they refused to submit to security checks. Authorities did not dismantle the dozens of tents and were expected to allow the demonstrators to return after Monday's events.

Early Tuesday morning, police used snow plows to break through makeshift barricades set up by rioters at both ends of the Elizabeth Bridge over the Danube River which divides Buda from Pest. Several hundred officers quickly dispersed the last few hundred rioters left in the area.

Police detained some of the rioters and a strong smell of tear gas lingered in several parts of downtown Budapest.

Delegations from at least 56 countries were in Budapest for Monday's commemorations, including NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Spain's King Juan Carlos. The ceremonies began with a raising of the national flag, followed by Hungarian and foreign dignitaries laying flowers at the foot of a 1956 monument on Kossuth Square.

Later, the officials attended a special session in the legislature's Upper House Chamber, where Gyurcsany and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso spoke.

"The courage of the often anonymous heroes of 1956 led to the foundation of new democracies and the reunification of Europe," Barroso said.

The 1956 student protests began on the afternoon of Oct. 23, and by nightfall had turned into an armed uprising. Around 2,800 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the Red Army offensive to crush the revolt, which was launched on Nov. 4, 1956.

After the military defeat, strikes and protests continued for several weeks until a Soviet crackdown definitively ended the uprising in January 1957.

Some 200,000 Hungarians fled the country and at least 225 Hungarians accused of participating in the revolution were executed _ including Imre Nagy, the communist-turned-democrat who was briefly retuned to power in 1956. The communists were in power in Hungary until 1989. Many had questioned the right of Gyurcsany's Socialists _ heirs of the communist party _ to lead the official commemorations.

But Gyurcsany defended his government's claim to the principles of the revolution.

"Our debates on 1956 are not about the past but the present, about who we are, what kind of world we would like," he said, adding "1956 is just a reminder, a mirror in which we see our present selves, sometimes in an exposed way."

Gyurcsany, 45, attended the unveiling of the central 1956 memorial near Heroes' Square, where a 60-foot-high statue of Stalin was toppled by the revolutionaries a half century ago. But he was loudly jeered by thousands of people standing behind police barricades.

At the same time, Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union, the main center-right opposition group, was holding their own 1956 commemoration just a few blocks away. According to State news agency MTI, more than 100,000 people were at the rally.

Fidesz leader Viktor Orban, a former prime minister, said his party would propose holding a binding referendum on the package of reforms introduced by the government to lower what is the largest state budget deficit in the European Union.

"People should be given the opportunity to vote on what is being done against their will," Orban told a large crowd.

Late Monday, President Laszlo Solyom _ citing security concerns _ canceled his scheduled appearance at the unveiling of the memorial near Heroes' Square.

On Sunday, Solyom had pleaded for national unity, trying to keep the bitter political divisions from spilling over into the celebrations.

"Oct. 23 could be a real national holiday if we wanted it to be, and if we took the steps leading back to the unity and uniqueness of 1956," Solyom said at a gala event at the Hungarian State Opera that launched the official ceremonies.

In Geneva, the U.N. refugee chief Antonio Guterres said the anniversary of Hungary's uprising should serve as a reminder of the world's need to generously aid victims of political persecution.


Associated Press writer Palma Benczenleitner contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press