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Austria says intelligence raids were legal but political storm rolls on

VIENNA (Reuters) - Police raids at Austria’s BVT domestic intelligence agency and the homes of some of its staff were carried out legally, the government said, aiming to quell suspicions of a purge at the agency by the far right, which controls the Interior Ministry.

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The case has caused a political uproar amid fears the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which became the junior partner in the governing coalition in December, sought to secure intelligence on right-wing groups or sideline political opponents within the BVT - accusations it denies.

Austria’s president said last week the handling of the case involved “extremely unusual” actions, and demanded explanations. Opposition parties have called a special session of parliament next week to discuss the case.

But a Justice Ministry review found no fault with the way the case has been dealt with, including a decision to have the raids carried out by a street crime unit of the police that is headed by an FPO official, the government said on Wednesday.

“This report has established that the course of action was legal,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose mainstream conservative party runs the Justice Ministry, told a news conference.

“I expect a rapid decision by the judiciary as far as these accusations are concerned,” said Kurz, whose government is the only one in western Europe with the far right in it.

Five BVT staff are under investigation on suspicion of misuse of office for failing to handle sensitive information properly, including a failure to delete it, the Justice Ministry said. Apart from BVT chief Peter Gridling, who has been suspended, the government has not named the staff members.

The newspaper Der Standard and weekly Profil jointly reported last week that one of the raids was at the home of a BVT official who is a witness rather than a suspect but who heads a department on extremism, and that information on extremist groups including rightist ones had been seized.

The Justice Ministry has said no official BVT documents were seized or accessed but it is possible such data was on private hard drives or other material now under seal and with prosecutors.

“Only those files that were marked as private were secured.... Because here the suspicion was that information that should have been deleted was copied into private files,” Justice Ministry Secretary General Christian Pilnacek told a separate news conference.

The opposition Social Democrats (SPO) said they were not satisfied. “Today more questions were raised than answered,” SPO justice spokesman Hannes Jarolim said in a statement. “I therefore call on all those involved...not to try and play down this affair but to finally put all their cards on the table.”

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich