BUCHAREST (Reuters) - A Romanian mayor, criticized by rights groups for relocating Roma gypsy families and building a concrete wall to separate off a Roma neighborhood, scored the biggest share of the vote in local elections, official data showed on Thursday.
Catalin Chereches, the incumbent 33-year-old mayor of Baia Mare, won 86 percent in Sunday's election, which was held just days after local authorities relocated dozens of Roma families to the administrative buildings of a dismantled copper plant.
Rights groups have criticized Chereches's policies and accused him of trying to set up a ghetto.
They say the construction of the 1.8 meter (six feet) high wall last year between a Roma neighborhood and a main road amounted to institutional racism and the new housing for relocated families was of poor quality and lacked sufficient kitchens and bathrooms.
Chereches, a member of the ruling left-leaning Social Liberal Union alliance (USL) which won most of the votes in local elections, said the relocation was not discriminatory and was only a temporary solution.
"This is just the first step in a project that aims to become the way, at an European level, of integrating the Roma people," Chereches told Reuters by telephone from Baia Mare in the far north of the country.
"It's just for one to three years until we identify land plots for those people to build houses."
About 620,000 Romanians describe themselves as Roma. Rights groups say many do not declare their background, some of them fearing discrimination, and the true number could be as high as 2.5 million. That would be the largest Roma community in Europe.
The vast majority live on the margins of society in abject poverty and pro-democracy groups say the state does not do enough to prevent discrimination.
Since Romania joined the European Union in 2007, hundreds of thousands of Roma have flooded European cities, complaining of racism and poverty at home.
The EU in May called on member states to do more to integrate their Roma populations and bring them closer to the economic and social mainstream.
Local Romanian media said authorities in Baia Mare began moving dozens of families in May from poor neighborhoods where they had lived in 20-year-old improvised buildings with no water, sewage or power supplies.
"There must be a process in place that gives all residents the chance to participate in any decisions that will affect their lives, and allows for them to genuinely participate without fear, harassment or intimidation," rights groups Amnesty International and Romani CRISS said in a statement.
Roma have a long history of being persecuted and during World War Two they were targeted by the Nazis. Although estimates vary, it is thought several hundred thousand died in concentration camps alongside millions of Jews.
France's repatriation of Roma in 2010 prompted one European Union official to recall the Nazis' persecution, overshadowed an EU summit and sparked a row between former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Earlier this month, French authorities dismantled a Roma camp on the banks of the river Garonne in Toulouse.
Reporting by Radu Marinas; Editing by Sophie Hares