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Violence at Vienna Ball

Haider
Protesters have gathered on a weekly basis since Joerg Haider's Freedom Party was included in the coalition government  

VIENNA, Austria -- Hundreds of demonstrators have clashed with police outside the venue for one of high points in the Vienna social calendar.

Protesters hurled stones and paint bombs on Thursday outside the city's opera house -- where concert-goers had paid up to 13,000 for a seat at the Vienna Ball.

More than 1,000 officers sealed off the area around the opera house, but scuffles broke out at the blockades and small fires were started.

The demonstration against Austria's controversial centre-right government came almost a year after similar protests greeted the entry into national government of the far-right Freedom Party, led at the time by Joerg Haider.

The ruling conservatives' pact with the Freedom Party and Haider -- who had previously been a controversial figure for remarks made about Hitler's SS troops -- resulted in the European Union imposing political sanctions on Austria.

It meant that last year's ball went ahead without its usual plethora of foreign dignitaries and glitterati, although an Adolf Hitler impersonator, complete with Nazi uniform and swastika armband, grabbed the headlines after being arrested for gatecrashing.

Haider later stepped down following widespread international condemnation of his party's entry into the coalition.

However, while this year's event did include prominent figures from the political, business and entertainment worlds, it also coincided with an on-going anti-government demonstration that has been held every Thursday since February 2000.

Despite the protest outside, the ball, which was sold out months ago despite ticket prices soaring from $190 for a seat to $13,110 for a box, began as scheduled at 8.00 p.m. (2100 GMT).

Among the guests who arrived at the besieged venue was Hollywood actress Farrah Fawcett, best known for her role in the 1970s U.S. television series "Charlie's Angels."

She said: "I feel like I'm in a period film, filled with very elegant and exquisite things. It's an honour to be here."

The first official Vienna Opera Ball took place in 1935 and since then, royalty, statesmen, politicians, industrialists and celebrities have attended the event.

Reuters contributed to this report.



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