Thousands protest against Vienna ball funded by far-right party (PHOTO, VIDEO)

Protesters march as they demonstrate against Austrian Freedom Party's (FPOe) Akademikerball ball in Vienna, Austria, January 29, 2016. The placards read, "FPOe out - refugees in". © Leonhard Foeger
Thousands of people have taken to the streets of the Austrian capital of Vienna chanting pro-refugee slogans to protest the annual Academics’ ball. The event, attended by German-language student networks, is deemed to be a meeting place for nationalists.

Several protests were announced for the night of the ball, which is being sponsored by the right-wing Freedom Party (FPO) of Austria. Police enforced a state of emergency and fully blocked a large area around the Hofburg Palace in the city center where the ball was taking place, declaring it “a high security zone,” according to local media.

The largest protest, organized by the “Offensive against the Right” movement, started at about 5 pm local time (16:00 GMT). About 3,000 people turned up for the protest initially, but just an hour later the number had already swelled to 5,000, according to police sources. Meanwhile, protest organizers said 8,000 demonstrators had come out.

The protesters gathered at Vienna University and then marched to the Museumsplatz (Museum Square) located opposite the Hofburg Palace. The crowds chanted slogans and held up placards and banners that read “Refugees welcome!” “FPO, get out!” “Refugees should stay!”

Another group of 35 protesters disguised their faces and carried banners, bearing such slogans as: “Vienna remains strong. Nazis must be stopped. Not once and never more.”

The protest’s organizers delivered an address to the crowd, demanding that the annual Academics’ balls be banned. The speeches were held under the slogan “Student networks should get out of Hofburg!”

People were also heard chanting: “Say it loud and say it clear, refugees are welcome here.”

Police deployed a total of nearly 3,000 officers to provide security during the demonstrations and prevent clashes between the ball guests and protesters. Police helicopters were also dispatched to monitor the situation. Moreover, there were several riot vehicles equipped with water cannons standing by, local media report, citing witnesses.

The rally was largely peaceful, but there were some instances of violence. According to police, eggs were thrown at some officers during the march, but there were no injuries and no arrests were made. Flash bangs and fireworks were also reportedly heard exploding.

The demonstration eventually wrapped up around 8 pm local time (19:00 GMT).

The Academics’ Ball (Akademikerball) is held annually at the Hofburg Palace. It has traditionally drawn a lot of opposition from Vienna’s left-wing and socialist residents, mainly due to its perceived connections with Europe’s far-right. Last year, the party’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, denied that the ball draws right-wingers.

Austria’s Freedom Party has been sponsoring the ball since 2013. The party campaigns on Euroscepticism and opposition to immigration, as well as low taxes.

The Academics’ Ball has gathered several right-wing parties in the past, including Austria’s FPO, France’s National Front, and the Netherlands’ ‘Partij voor de Vrijheid’. 

(Tweets show FPO member Marlene Svazek posing at the Friday ball and elsewhere at a different date with UKIP’s Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen of the French National Front)

There were also two other rallies scheduled to take place in the city not far from the Hofburg Palace.

READ MORE: Scuffles, dozens arrested as crowds protest Vienna’s right party-funded ball (VIDEO) 

In 2015, similar protests ended up in violent clashes, with activists scuffling with police, throwing bottles and firecrackers at the officers, and trying to block access to the ball. A total of about 50 arrests were made at the time.