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Riot police in Budapest brace for violence on holiday - extended

Riot police in Budapest are preparing to combat anti-government protests after authorities said demonstrators may mark a national holiday tomorrow with violence.

A 35-year-old man was charged with illegal possession of five handguns, two modified firearms, dozens of parts and 10 grams (0.435 ounces) of gunpowder, national police said on its Web site. The man claimed he obtained some of those guns while working in a weapons factory and purchased the rest for his personal use, according to the statement today. Police also uncovered a weapons arsenal in Mezőkeresztes, a rural town in eastern Hungary, according to state television's Web site today. The stash included about a dozen guns, knives and rocket launchers, the Web site said. Officers yesterday arrested a 19-year-old man following a raid on what they called a „Molotov cocktail factory” in Budapest's central sixth district, state news agency MTI reported. They found 81 bottles and other flammable materials in an apartment the man had rented a month ago, MTI said. The weapons were to be distributed to other protesters and used against the police tomorrow, the report said. During interrogation, the man, a member of a radical nationalist group, confessed to being one of the protesters who occupied the square in front of parliament in October, MTI said.

The government warned last month that radical groups were planning attacks on officials and public buildings on March 15, the day Hungary commemorates the 1848 revolution against the Habsburgs. Police said almost 30,000 officers will be on stand-by nationwide and helicopters will monitor central Budapest. „There are groups and individuals who are planning to disturb the peace,” National Police Chief László Bene said. „We have to do everything possible to not let that escalate.”

The last demonstrations turned into the worst street violence in Hungary for 50 years. Thousands stormed the state television headquarters, torched cars and clashed with police for three consecutive days in September after Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted lying about the economy to win re-election. A month later, on the October 23 national holiday, police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to break up more protests.

A total 1,205 events are registered for tomorrow in Hungary, said Endre Komáromi, who deals with traffic and public events at the national police. That's twice the average for a March 15. Police today found a stash of illegal weapons in Budapest and a weapons arsenal in eastern Hungary, according to a statement on the police's Web site. Last week, five men were charged with targeting police and state buildings, and police found guns, throwing stars and Molotov cocktails belonging to them. In February, a gunman fired 15 shots at the national police headquarters.

Most of the protesters support opposition parties and also include „football hooligans and other aggressive radical people,” police spokesman Lajos Németh said in an interview. Fidesz, the biggest opposition party, is going forward with a rally tomorrow at the same spot where demonstrators and police clashed October 23, even after Budapest Mayor Gábor Demszky urged leader and former Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to cancel. The party also has been campaigning to dismantle a steel fence that's surrounded the Budapest Parliament since October.

The riots on that day marred the 50th anniversary of the 1956 revolution. Police first started dispersing crowds with tear gas in the late afternoon, in 18 degrees (64 Fahrenheit) and sunshine. The Weather for tomorrow is forecast to be similar. „We don't know who those radical protesters are, we only know their existence serves the government to scare people into not going to the street on March 15,” Péter Szijjártó, a spokesman for Fidesz, said by telephone.

The most extreme rioters, „young men, poorly educated, without prospects,” have been used as pawns by extreme right groups to carry out their agenda, said György Csepeli, a psychologist who helped draft the government report on the violence. „They are the urban desperados, ready to be hired, to be used by any political group for its purposes.” While most Hungarians distance themselves from the violence, many are in favor of challenging a government they blame for lingering hardship in the country of 10 million. They include people who lost out in the country's transition to democracy, forced into unemployment as state companies closed or made to take lower-paying work.

Gyurcsány's popularity has fallen since unveiling a package of austerity measures in June to reduce the country's deficit, the European Union's widest, almost two months after taking office. The measures mean more taxes for the average Hungarian. The average monthly gross wage was the equivalent of $1,050 in December compared with more than $3,500 a month in Germany.

„As far as I understand, only those people are protesting against Gyurcsány who didn't vote for the Socialists in 2006,” said Gyula Hegyi, a Socialist member of the European Parliament, adding the protests aren't a „real crisis” for the party. In an interview with the London-based Times in early March, Gyurcsány said Hungary was in danger of radical nationalism and anti-Semitism and accused Fidesz of not doing enough to distant itself and condemn both. Fidesz rejects that. „We have always separated the party from radical roots,” Szijjártó said. Fidesz leaders also refused requests to meet with radical protesters, he added. Szijjártó did not rule out „attacks and a brutal day” tomorrow, and said the government would be to blame.

Fidesz asked police to ban a demonstration planned by the radical groups, saying it could put their supporters in harm's way and be considered „provocation” by police. More than 700 were injured in last fall's protests, and 28 police officers were later charged with excessive force. The Helsinki Committee, a non-profit organization that focuses on human rights, sent a letter to national police last month urging them to avoid extreme force on March 15.