- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2000

VIENNA, Austria Joerg Haider, the flamboyant former leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party, is offering gasoline at discount prices in the southern province of Carinthia, where he is governor.

Motorist organizations in Austria have followed Mr. Haider's lead and are putting pressure on both the government and companies to cut fuel prices.

The largest association has called on Economics Minister Martin Bartensstein to call an immediate "fuel price summit."

Elisabeth Brugger-Brandau of the second-largest motorist organization said: "The slight rises in crude oil prices are no reason for this price explosion."

Mr. Haider refused to say where the fuel came from, but the move came a week after his return from a visit to the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

The governor is known to be a friend of Col. Gadhafi's son, Saif, who studied in Vienna. When an American journalist broke news of the visit to Libya, Mr. Haider said it had been "purely private."

Mr. Haider's offer comes amid increasing criticism of multinational oil companies, which have increased prices for gasoline in recent months while recording high profits. Shell Austria finished the last business year with profits of more than $60 million but said the good result was not because of high fuel prices.

The Carinthian fuel will be sold at 12 percent below average pump prices.

Mr. Haider claims that his "price-breaking" action will force big companies to lower prices and has said he will put even local government fuel stocks on sale if his cheap gasoline runs out.

"The important thing is that the people of Carinthia get some relief and have an advantage over others," he said.

The latest edition of the news magazine Profil says Mr. Haider was not the only Freedom Party official to visit Libya.

Opposition members of parliament have demanded to know who paid for the trips and whether Libya was funding the Freedom Party.

Profil said there had been at least three earlier visits to Libya, all organized by a former party manager, Harald Goschl, who has good contacts there as the manager of an oil-trading firm.

Mr. Goschl said: "Economic interests have then as now always been at the forefront of the trips. But there were certainly no funds flowing to the party."

Although he denied charges that he had helped Col. Gadhafi set up a missile-defense system four years after the U.S. air strike on Libya in 1985 he admitted in an interview that he was prepared to supply anything "that helps Libya to strengthen its armed forces."

Analysts said reports of ties between the Freedom Party and Libya make it increasingly unlikely that Europe will move quickly to lift diplomatic sanctions imposed after the party was included in Austria's government.

Past statements by Mr. Haider and other party members that appear to praise Nazi policies and minimize Austria's Nazi past prompted the imposition of sanctions that limit the nation's contact with the rest of the European Community.

Mr. Haider already had started his war against the oil giants in April of last year when he filed a complaint to the EU Commission against the companies for a possible breach of cartel regulations. Mr. Haider, who said he hopes other Austrian regions will take up his cheap fuel initiative, already is issuing a bonus card giving customers further discounts.

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