BUDAPEST Six hundred people, wearing black uniforms and insignia which critics say are reminiscent of the Nazi era, took an oath of loyalty on Sunday to defend Hungary as members of a far-right "guard".
The Hungarian Guard was launched in August with 56 members and drew widespread criticism because of its uniform and use of a red-and-white striped flag linked to the fascist Arrow Cross regime which sent hundreds of thousands of Jews to death camps.
The guard, backed by the far-right Jobbik political party, denies it is anti-Semitic and says it is a civic group which wants to preserve Hungarian culture.
"The Guard has 5,000 candidates to join," Jobbik spokesman Levente Jonas told journalists at the rally which attracted several thousand supporters, who watched the guard's new members march up Budapest's main thoroughfare to its main square.
Far-right groups and the opposition are preparing for new anti-government protests a year after widespread rioting on the 50th anniversary of Hungary's 1956 uprising against Soviet rule.
Despite weeks of violent protests last year and the prospect of tens of thousands of people attending opposition rallies on October 23, Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany remains firmly in control and is implementing economic reforms.
Even though far-right groups like Jobbik have prospered in the wake of the riots, they win only a fraction of the votes cast in elections and are not represented in parliament.
The government says the main opposition Fidesz party has abetted their rise, something Fidesz denies.
Gyurcsany has compared the rise of the guard to that of Hitler's brownshirts in 1930s Germany, while Mazsihisz, a Jewish group, said the outfits were "similar to the point of deception to the uniforms of the Fascist movements of the 1940s".
Political analysts say the guard's target is probably not Jews, but Hungary's substantial Roma (gypsy) population, numbering around 600,000 of the country's 10 million people.
"Many people say their main topic is anti-Semitism, but it is their anti-Roma base... (and stoking) the conflict between Roma and non-Roma in Hungarian society. From this point of view they are dangerous," said Peter Kreko at thinktank Political Capital.
One of the guard's supporters in Sunday's crowd made clear he regarded gypsies as a problem.
"In Hungary everyone who wants order is labeled a racist ... they (Roma) live with filth and dirt and if anybody wants to do away with this then they are labeled a racist," said Istvan Szemecs, a middle-aged man carrying a red and white flag.
(Additional reporting by Sandor Peto, Krisztina Fenyo)