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Thousands protest right-wingers at Vienna ball, 38 detained

Austrian riot police block protesters demonstrating against the annual right-wing Freedom Party's Academic Ball being held at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna on January 30, 2015. AFP PHOTO /JOE KLAMAR

VIENNA: As elegant pairs waltzed under crystal chandeliers Friday, thousands of raucous demonstrators outside their lavish palace ball demanded an end to the black-tie event, which they say draws the far-right fringe from across Europe. Police detained dozens and at least two people were injured.

Police estimated the number of protesters at about 5,000 people. Isolated scuffles broke out with helmeted officers in riot gear, and riot dogs were used in at least one instance to disperse demonstrators.

Police spokesman Johann Golob said one officer was "wounded" by fireworks and at least one protester was also injured.

With midnight approaching, 38 people had been detained and the demonstrators appeared to be dispersing, but Golob said police would remain on the streets until all danger of unrest was put to rest. He also spoke of unspecified damage. The full cost of vandalism from protests last year exceeded 1 million euros ($1.3 million) but could not be fully assessed until days later.

Balls in Vienna have been a tradition for centuries, with the moneyed class waltzing through wars and recessions, blissfully ignoring the occasional firebomb-throwing anarchist opposed to the alleged decadence associated with such events. Left-wing groups criticize some of Vienna's more opulent balls as a showcase for the rich, but none draws as much opposition as the Academy Ball, which has been held under various names for 60 years.

That event, at the ornate downtown Hofburg palace, started drawing demonstrators decades ago as Austrians started embracing the view that their country - long portrayed as one of Nazi Germany's first victims through its 1938 annexation - was in fact one of Hitler's most loyal allies.

Opposition peaked in 2012 with the Austrian committee reporting to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural organization, striking all Vienna balls from its list of Austria's noteworthy traditions because of the one ball, staged in part by dueling fraternities including far-right alumni who display saber scars on their cheeks as badges of honor.

The ball is sponsored by the Freedom Party, whose supporters range from those opposed to the EU to the far-right fringe. Freedom Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache denied that the ball drew right-wingers and criticized opponents as "jackbooted troops of the SA," using the acronym associated with Hitler's brown-shirted storm troops.

He insisted that he meant "Socialist Antifascists," an occasionally violent far-left-anarchist group.

 

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