By Angel Krasimirov
SOFIA (Reuters) - Hundreds of far-right extremists marched through the center of Sofia on Saturday to honor a Bulgarian general who led a pro-Nazi organization in the 1930s and 1940s.
The march, which has raised concern in local media about the rise of the right wing in the Balkan state, went ahead despite international condemnation.
It included a torchlight procession by youths in dark clothing and the laying of wreaths at the former home of General Hristo Lukov, a leader of the pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian Legions in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Sofia municipality initially banned the event, but its decision was overturned in court. Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandukova repeatedly said the procession "has no place in our city".
Critics said the procession would overshadow government efforts to present the ex-communist Balkan state, which joined the EU in 2007, as a progressive and open-minded country at a time when Bulgaria holds the bloc's rotating presidency.
The government, the country's largest political parties and several Jewish organizations including the World Jewish Congress all called for the march to be suspended, while an international petition against it gathered more than 178,000 signatures.
The U.S. embassy in Sofia said in a statement that it was "saddened and troubled to see the display of intolerance represented by the Lukov March".
"General Hristo Lukov was a Nazi supporter who promoted hate and injustice, and is not someone deserving of veneration," the embassy said.
Far-right groups from several European countries, including Germany, Sweden, Hungary and Estonia joined the marchers, calling themselves Bulgarian nationalists and describing Lukov as a "Bulgarian war hero".
"There is no power in the world that could prohibit us from honoring a hero, a warrior and a statesman, as undoubtedly General Lukov is," Zvezdomir Andonov, one of the organizers of the march, told a group of reporters.
Hundreds gathered at a counter-protest under the motto "No Nazis on the streets" in central Sofia a few hours before the procession, which went ahead without incident but with a heavy police presence.
Lukov served as Bulgaria's minister of war from 1935-1938, fostering close ties with senior Nazi officials in Germany. He pushed through a Bulgarian law modeled on the 1935 Nuremberg Laws in Germany that stripped Jews of their civic rights.
Marriages between Bulgarian Jews and non-Jews were prohibited and Jews were forced to pay a heavy tax on their net worth. They were expelled from universities, the civil service and other professions, their property was confiscated and many were forced into labor camps.
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Hugh Lawson)