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Thousands Mourn Austrian Far Rightist Joerg Haider


Tens of thousands of people gathered in Austria's southern city Klagenfurt Saturday to mourn far right politician and provincial governor Joerg Haider, whose views as a Nazi sympathizer in the 1990s sparked international outrage. Saturday's funeral came a week after Haider was killed in a high-speed crash, apparently while drunk at the wheel. Stefan Bos reports for VOA from Budapest.

Mourners, many dressed in traditional green and brown dresses and lederhosen, lined the streets of the provincial capital Klagenfurt where Joerg Haider's wooden coffin, decked in red flowers and ribbon, was taken from government headquarters to the town square, accompanied by solemn brass band music.

Tens of thousands of Austrians attended an open air memorial service for Haider, who governed Austria's province of Carinthia since 1999.

The far-right leader remained popular here, despite sparking Western outrage over perceived anti-Semitic rhetoric, including his praise for labor policies of German wartime leader Adolf Hitler.

Haider later called the remarks a mistake and publicly denounced Nazism, but he continued to make headlines by visiting veterans of the Waffen S.S., Hitler's elite soldiers, in which he praised their character.

He was also seen bringing anti-immigration policies into European politics.

Yet, speaking at Saturday's memorial service, Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer said Haider also took on the political establishment in Vienna.

He said Haider had "an excellent feeling" for what had to change in politics. Mr. Gusenbauer added that Haider "was a man who could leave no one cold, whether in a positive or a negative sense." But he also indirectly mentioned the controversy surrounding Haider's right-wing views. Mr. Gusenbauer said Haider's suggestions for change " were not everywhere recognized."

After his speech and the public memorial, Haider's body was taken to Klagenfurt's 16th century cathedral, where Requiem funeral music was performed.

Among those attending was the son of Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi, Saif al-Islam, who befriended Haider during his Vienna student days. His attendance underscored Haider's international connections.

Haider came to prominence in 1986, when he became head of the Freedom Party while still in his 30s. He later spearheaded the rise of the right into a coalition government from 2000 to 2006, before participating in a new party.

Despite controversies, analysts say that Haider, who projected youth and style, appealed to many working-class Austrians, promising to cut their taxes and give money to those with children. Some older Austrians responded to his demands for strict law and order.

Former vice chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, who knew him well, told Austria's national broadcaster ORF on Saturday that Haider died before he could prove himself as en elder statesman.

"The shock of his sudden death is for me the realization that the most interesting Joerg Haider would have been the Joerg Haider in his later years," she said. "During the recent elections he showed a new style, he was more calm but very clear. And I think he could have reached more than previously in politics."

An urn with Haider's ashes was to be buried at his family estate outside Klagenfurt, in a private ceremony, late Saturday.

The circumstances surrounding Haider's death as controversial as the man himself.

Police investigators have said the 58-year-old Haider was killed when his luxury car crashed at more than 140 kilometers per hour, twice the speed limit.

His blood alcohol level was said to have been four times the legal limit, after he allegedly visited a gay nightclub. Haider leaves behind a wife, two daughters and his mother, whose 90th birthday he wanted to celebrate, last week.