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BERLIN (Reuters) - A convey of 350 farm tractors rumbled through Berlin on Saturday to launch a mass anti-nuclear rally, designed to influence Germany's general election in three weeks' time.
About 50,000 opponents of nuclear power took part in the protest, which kicked off with an 8-km (5-mile)-long convey of tractors that passed in front of Chancellor Angela Merkel's offices and through the government quarter to the city's historic Brandenburg Gate.
Determined to make nuclear power a focus of the election campaign, the protesters criticised Merkel and her conservative party, which wants to scrap a 2001 law to shut down Germany's 17 remaining nuclear power plants by the mid-2020s.
"We won't tolerate any backtracking on the nuclear exit," Fritz Pothmer, a northern German farmer, said to cheers at the largest anti-nuclear rally in years. "It's nuclear insanity. How could Merkel become such a tool of the nuclear lobby?"
The future of nuclear power is one of the few key issues that divide Merkel's Christian Democrats from the Social Democrats (SPD) of her challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The parties have shared power for the past four years in an awkward 'grand coalition' that both want to end.
But so far nuclear power has only been a fringe issue in the run-up to the September 27 election, in which Merkel's conservatives and their preferred partners, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), have been pushing to extend the life of the plants.
A wide majority of Germans oppose nuclear power, according to opinion polls. But Merkel and the FDP still hold a slim lead over other possible coalition alliances ahead of the election. The SPD and Greens oppose any change to the nuclear exit law.
"I hope this wakes people up," said Laila Sack, a 21-year-old archaeology student at the rally. "Nuclear used to be a hot issue but it's gone quiet. I think that will change once more people realize what Merkel and the FDP want to do."
Crowds of well-wishers waved at the long convoy of tractors, some of which pulled wagons filled with demonstrators or fake barrels of radioactive waste.
"We hope this will bring some color into the campaign," said Wolfgang Ehmke, one of the organizers.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan