Swiss police, protesters clash at election rally

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BERNE, Oct 6 (Reuters) Swiss police fired teargas and anti-right-wing protesters hurled rocks and bottles during a political rally in Switzerland's capital today, in a sign of rising tensions ahead of an unusually divisive election.

The clashes occurred when hundreds of demonstrators sought to interrupt a march organised by the right-wing Switzerland's People's Party (SVP/UDC) through the streets of Berne, a Reuters photographer on the scene said.

The SVP, which has campaigned against minarets in Swiss cities and plastered billboards and roadsides with posters calling for ''black sheep'' foreigners to be kicked out, is poised to be the largest vote-winner in the October 21 national vote.

Its campaign has sparked criticism from human rights officials at the United Nations, whose European headquarters is in Geneva, and polarised the normally staid Swiss electorate.

There were no reported injuries or arrests from the skirmishes near Berne's historic city centre. Police had no immediate comment.

The SVP has gained popularity in recent years under the pugnacious leadership of industrialist Christoph Blocher who has appealed to conservative Swiss voters with his anti-European Union, isolationist message.

In a statement circulated after the rally, the party said the skirmishes in Berne were an affront to freedom of expression, and said its leftist rivals destroyed public property and damaged cars while SVP supporters acted peacefully.

The SVP said 10,000 people participated in its march, though local media estimated the crowd size at between 5,000 and 6,000.

The Social Democratic Party (SP), which is trailing the SVP in the lead-up to the election, also denounced the disruption which it said compromised the right-wing party's entitlement to free expression and association.

''These democratic rights need to be guaranteed for all,'' the Social Democrats said, adding: ''The violence committed today by the demonstrators was unacceptable, and the (SP) strongly condemns it.'' Switzerland is governed by a seven-member federal council in which the SVP currently holds two seats. Blocher serves as justice minister in the multi-party council.

REUTERS PY VC2341

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