Far-right Independence Day march draws thousands in Poland

By Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska and Marek Strzelecki

WARSAW (Reuters) -Thousands of people gathered in Warsaw on Friday for an annual march organised by Poland's far-right to mark Independence Day, with a handful carrying white supremacist or anti-gay banners and firing off red flares.

Marchers, including families with children as well as representatives of far-right groups, waved white and red Polish flags and chanted "God, Honour, Homeland" as they walked through central Warsaw amid a heavy police presence.

"Poland will be independent only if everybody's rights to life are equal and abortion is fully banned," said one marcher, Malgorzata Kurzeja, 42, an anti-abortion activist.

The annual event has become a point of friction between far-right groups and supporters of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on one side, and liberal Poles on the other.

Since it came to power in 2015, the government has sought to instil more conservative, traditional family values in public life, including the introduction of a near-total ban an abortion. Critics at home and abroad have accused the government of fomenting homophobia during election campaigns.

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, an arch conservative, said the march was an opportunity to show "unity and strength" at a time when Poland's sovereignty was no given, alluding to his critical view of the European Union.

The Warsaw city hall has made numerous attempts in the past to delegalise the event, but the Independence March association, the organizer, has successfully challenged court decisions.

Last year, the march focused on anti-immigrant rhetoric amid a migrant crisis when thousands of people mostly from the Middle East and Africa sought to cross into Poland from Belarus, but were pushed back by the Polish border guard.

Organisers have toned down their anti-immigrant agenda in the face of Russia's war on Ukraine, which has driven millions of Ukrainians to seek refuge throughout Europe, although a handful of protesters brought anti-Ukrainian banners.

Over a million Ukrainian refugees have remained in Poland and the nation has received international praise for coming to their aid since the invasion began, with thousands of Poles providing housing, food, money and transport.

(Reporting by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, Editing by Angus MacSwan and Mark Heinrich)