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Letter accuses Haider of racism

Haider resigned as leader of the Freedom Party last year  

VIENNA, Austria -- Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider has been accused of manipulating racist sentiments and invoking anti-Semitic rhetoric.

The attack is made by several dozen international academics in an open letter to Austrian President Thomas Klestil.

The letter, published in Der Standard newspaper and containing 67 signatures, said: "Haider's manipulation of racist sentiments to serve political ends lays bare the illegitimacy of his claim to be a democrat or an adherent to the basic tenets of Austrian democracy.

"He hides behind the democratic principle of free speech even as he reviles the democratic cornerstones of fairness and equality by invoking anti-Semitic rhetoric to further his political agenda."

The letter, written in English and German, also denounced Austria's leaders for the "meekness" of their response to Haider's recent attack on a Jewish leader.

Haider, provincial governor of Carinthia, resigned as leader of the Freedom Party last year after leading the anti-immigration group into a coalition with Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's conservative People's Party.

But he continues to dominate the party and has spearheaded its controversial campaign ahead of local elections in Vienna on Sunday.

The party has run posters combining the words "Foreigners," "Crime" and "Drugs."

Friday's letter, signed by professors from the United States, Israel and European, was prompted by Haider's recent attacks on Ariel Muzicant.

Haider has repeatedly attacked Muzicant in the past month, insisting his comments were not anti-Semitic but a legitimate attack on a political opponent.

In his most recent attack, on Thursday, Haider accused Muzicant of being "unpatriotic" and spreading lies abroad about alleged threats to his community.

Haider said Muzicant had claimed Jews would be endangered by the advent to power of Haider's Freedom Party.

Muzicant is already suing Haider for libel for previous remarks.

The Freedom Party suffered defeats in state elections in Styria and Burgenland last year.

It is now looking to defend the 27.9 percent of the vote it won in the 1996 Vienna election, but opinion polls suggest it could be in for another setback.

The campaign has in essence amounted to a fight between Haider and Vienna's Social Democrat mayor Michael Haeupl.

Haeupl, who heads a coalition with the People's Party, is expected to be re-elected but the result of the election will be scrutinised closely for its national implications.

Some political commentators believe that, if the Freedom Party does badly, Haider might conclude that being part of the national government is damaging the party and terminate the alliance with Schuessel.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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