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Police clash with demonstrators on day marking 1956 Hungarian uprising

BUDAPEST, Hungary &

Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse protesters Monday in anti-government demonstrations coinciding with Hungary's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of its uprising against Soviet rule.

A line of about 150 police in riot gear, behind three water cannons, slowly advanced on a crowd of about 200 protesters, who threw bottles and rocks. Police fired back with tear gas as a police helicopter circled low above the crowd.

An Associated Press photographer said one protester in the streets near Kossuth Square &

the site of previous large demonstrations &

was hit in the head by a rubber bullet and was bleeding but conscious.

Demonstrators carried placards with 7-foot-tall letters spelling out the word "freedom" in Hungarian.

The protesters had gathered in different spots near the center of the city. Some had set up road blocks with garbage cans and threw rocks at the police dressed in riot gear, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them near St. Stephen's Basilica.

Police had earlier expelled several hundred protesters from Kossuth Square outside parliament, the site of Monday's 1956 commemorations. The demonstrations on the square began Sept. 17, when a recording was leaked revealing Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitting that the government lied about the economy before its re-election in April.

State news agency MTI reported that police beat some of the protesters &

including women and elderly people &

with rubber batons, and some had head injuries.

The protesters had vowed to stay until Gyurcsany was dismissed, but police pushed them off the square after they refused to submit to security checks. But authorities did not dismantle the dozens of tents set up by the protesters, and they were expected to allow the demonstrators to return after Monday's commemoration.

At the same time, Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union, the main center-right opposition group, held its own 1956 commemoration just a few blocks away, drawing tens of thousands of people, according to MTI.

President Laszlo Solyom pleaded Sunday for national unity, trying to keep the bitter political divisions from spilling over into the celebrations.

"Oct. 23 could be a real national holiday if we wanted it to be, and if we took the steps leading back to the unity and uniqueness of 1956," Solyom said at a gala event at the Hungarian State Opera that launched the official ceremonies.

On Monday, commemorations began with the raising of the national flag, followed by Hungarian and foreign dignitaries laying flowers at the foot of a 1956 monument on Kossuth Square.

Officials later attended a special session in the legislature's Upper House Chamber, where Gyurcsany and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso spoke.

"Our debates on 1956 are not about the past but the present, about who we are, what kind of world we would like," Gyurcsany said. "1956 is just a reminder, a mirror in which we see our present selves, sometimes in an exposed way."

Many question the right of Gyurcsany's Socialists &

heirs of the Communist Party that ruled after Hungary's 1956 revolution was crushed by Soviet troops until 1989 &

to lead the official commemorations.

But Gyurcsany, 45, said his government had a legitimate claim to the principles of the revolution. He described Imre Nagy, the communist-turned-democrat who was briefly returned to power in 1956, as "the political predecessor of every prime minister" of post-communist Hungary.

Barroso said the 1956 revolution "lit a torch of freedom" that later helped topple dictatorships across Europe.

"The courage of the often anonymous heroes of 1956 led to the foundation of new democracies and the reunification of Europe," Barroso said.

In Geneva, the U.N. refugee chief said the anniversary of Hungary's uprising, which forced 200,000 people to flee the country, should serve as a reminder of the world's need to generously aid victims of political persecution.

"Unfortunately, today we are witnessing situations in which the amount of suffering is much greater than what we saw in Budapest &

and the indifference is also much greater," said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. He did not mention any current refugee crisis.

Delegations from at least 56 countries were in Budapest for the commemorations, including NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Spain's King Juan Carlos.

Other events scheduled for Monday included the unveiling of a memorial dedicated to the uprising near the spot where a 60-foot statue of Stalin was toppled.

A smaller tribute was to be unveiled by groups of 1956 veterans at Budapest's University of Technology and Economics, where student protests began on the afternoon of Oct. 23, 1956, and by nightfall had turned into the armed uprising.

About 2,800 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the Red Army attack, which was launched Nov. 4, 1956.

After the military defeat, strikes and protests continued for several weeks until a Soviet crackdown definitively ended the uprising in January 1957. Some 200,000 Hungarians escaped the country and at least 225 accused of participating in the uprising were executed, including Nagy.