Budapest rioters storm TV station in 'lying PM' protest

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The Independent Online

Protesters clashed with police and stormed the headquarters of Hungary's state television early today, enraged at a leaked recording in which the prime minister admitted the government "lied morning, evening and night" about the economy.

Rescue services said at least 50 people were injured as police in Budapest fired tear gas and water cannon at rock-throwing protesters who have been demanding the government resign.

The violence followed a mainly-peaceful demonstration that began a day earlier outside parliament, after a recording made in May was leaked to local media. On it, prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitted officials lied about government finances to win April's elections.

Despite the surge in violence involving dozens of the protesters, Gyurcsany said that he had no plans to resign.

"The street is not a solution, but instead causes conflict and crisis," the prime minister told MTI, the state news service, early today. "Our job is to resolve the conflict and prevent a crisis."

Smaller anti-government protests were also held in other cities around Hungary, but violence was minimal.

Socialist party members of parliament voted unanimously to support him and the government called for an emergency session of the Cabinet today.

As the crowd grew to more than 10,000, according to an estimate by MTI, several hundred broke away and marched over to the nearby headquarters of state television, demanding to deliver a statement in a live broadcast.

While most of demonstrators watched, a few dozen broke through police lines and into the TV headquarters.

Police tried to disperse them with water cannon sprays but the truck was quickly disabled by the rioters, some of whom escorted the police officers operating the vehicle to safety. Several cars near the TV building were set on fire, their flames scorching the building and damaging furniture inside.

The rioters appeared to control some areas on the ground floor of the block-square television building. Police said they were preparing to drive them out and were ordering several thousand police reinforcements to the capital.

Rioters also vandalised a large obelisk commemorating Soviet soldiers who were killed driving Nazi forces from Hungary at the end of the Second World War.

The tape was made at a closed-door meeting in late May, weeks after Gyurcsany's government became the first in post-communist Hungary to win re-election.

It seemed to confirm the worst accusations levelled at him by the centre-right opposition during the campaign - that Hungary's state budget was on the verge of collapse and that Gyurcsany and his ministers were concealing the truth to secure victory.

Adding spice to the scandal, Gyurcsany's comments were full of crude remarks and called into doubt the abilities of some of Hungary's most respected economic experts.

"We screwed up. Not a little, a lot," Gyurcsany was heard saying. "No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have."

The prime minister also told colleagues the government needed to end its duplicitous ways.

"I almost died when for a year and a half we had to pretend we were governing. Instead, we lied morning, evening and night. I don't want to do this anymore," he told his fellow Socialists.

Gyurcsany, 45, his party's golden boy since he was elected prime minister in late 2002, said the economy had been kept afloat only through "divine providence, the abundance of cash in the world economy and hundreds of tricks".

Confronted with initial excerpts of the 25-minute recording, which Hungarian state radio posted on its website on Sunday, Gyurcsany not only acknowledged their authenticity but seemed relieved they had been made public - leading to speculation that the leak came from sources close to him.

"It deflates pent-up tensions regarding the reforms and ... can be used to support the government's position that they are urgent and inevitable," said political analyst Zoltan Kiszelly.

Others said the leak was an attempt - which may have misfired - by Gyurcsany's Socialist rivals to block his aspirations to become party chairman.

"The real issue in Hungarian politics today is not who lied and when, but who is able to put an end to this ... who can face up to the lies and half-truths of the past 16 years," Gyurcsany wrote in an Sunday night entry of his blog, introducing a lengthy transcript of his May speech.

"The lies are the sins of the whole Hungarian political elite."

But yesterday the political mood was against Gyurcsany. Opposition parties demanded his resignation, while President Laszlo Solyom chastised the prime minister for "knowingly" jeopardising people's faith in democracy and asked Gyurcsany to publicly recognise his error.