HILVERSUM, Netherlands – Right-wing Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, whose anti-immigration party stunned the public with its strong showing in local elections last March, was shot six times and killed Monday as he left a radio interview.
Dutch television said the 54-year-old politician was shot in the head, neck and chest. The attack came nine days before national elections, and opinion polls had predicted Fortuyn would lead one of the largest parties in parliament.
Prime Minister Wim Kok confirmed Fortuyn's death.
"After this assassination, Pim Fortuyn is gone," Kok said in The Hague after breaking off a campaign engagement in the western city of Haarlem. "This is a deep tragedy. I am shocked. This is a deep tragedy for those close to him, for his loved ones and for our country and our democracy."
The radio reporter who interviewed Fortuyn said police with dogs chased and captured a man with a gun. Other witnesses said the gunman was chased by at least four people after the shooting. Police had no immediate comment.
It was the first time in modern history that a Dutch political leader was assassinated. "These are things you thought were just not possible in the Netherlands," said Ad Melkert, new leader of the ruling Labor Party and its candidate for prime minister. "It's a low-point for our democracy."
Fortuyn, a former academic and columnist who led an openly gay lifestyle, had dictated debate during the campaign with verbal attacks on the country's growing Muslim population and strident criticism of the national government.
He called Islam a "backward" culture and laid claim to leadership of the Netherlands' perennially vacant political right.
Fortuyn was leaving a 3FM radio network interview in Hilversum, about 10 miles southeast of Amsterdam, when he was attacked. He was heading for his car when gunned down. Television said paramedics treated Fortuyn where he fell at the entrance to a building, and he was not taken to hospital.
"I saw Pim Fortuyn lying on the ground with a bullet wound in his head," said television reporter Dave Abspoel.
Fortuyn's rise mirrored a right-wing resurgence in several European countries, lately highlighted by the anti-immigrant Jean Marie Le Pen's surprise showing in the first round of French presidential elections. He was soundly defeated in Sunday's run-off vote by incumbent Jacques Chirac.
Nevertheless, Fortuyn had dissociated himself from Le Pen and other European extreme right leaders.
Fortuyn's platform seemed out of place in the Netherlands, which has a reputation for liberalism. It was the first country to legalize gay marriages, regulate prostitution, approve and control euthanasia, and tolerate the over-the-counter sale of marijuana in hundreds of "coffee shops."
Though tolerant of such subcultures, Fortuyn's popularity has exposed a deep vein of suspicion of immigrants in Europe's most densely populated country, about 2 million of whose 16 million people are not native Dutch. About 800,000 are Muslims, predominantly Moroccans and Turks.
Several political parties called for a halt in the campaign, but there was no immediate demand to postpone the vote. The head of the Liberal Party, VVD, Hans Dijkstal, stopped his party's campaign.
In the Netherlands, most political leaders travel without bodyguards, often using public transportation. The only exceptions were Kok, as head of government. Fortuyn, however, had his own bodyguards and his party headquarters in Rotterdam were always guarded.
Last March, his newly formed party stunned the nation by sweeping 35 percent of the vote in local elections in Rotterdam, a port city with a large immigrant population.
Police cordoned off Fortuyn's house in Rotterdam, where he often met supporters and gave interviews. Followers lay bouquets outside the house.
Fortuyn's hard-hitting campaign against immigration and what he called "the mess" created by Kok's eight-year coalition, dominated the campaign and refocused the issues.
Fortuyn had recently expressed fears for his safety. A few weeks ago, protesters threw cream pies laced with urine in his face.