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PARIS (Reuters) - A political storm with accusations of anti-Semitism and censorship stirred up UNESCO's election of a new director-general on Thursday, centering on one of the top candidate's comment that he would burn Israeli books.
Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni's bid for the United Nations culture agency's top post has drawn fire from French intellectuals and Jewish organizations, who were joined by press freedom activists before the first round of voting on Thursday.
Hosni apologized for the comment made last year earlier this year, and some prominent activists such as French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld said they accept his regrets and support him.
But other activists have since piled into the row, accusing Hosni of colluding in censorship and violation of press freedom in Egypt, and pressuring UNESCO members not to vote for him.
"Let's burn these books; if there are any, I will burn them myself before you," Hosni was quoted as telling a member of parliament who had confronted him about the presence of Israeli books in Egyptian libraries last year.
"Hosni is culture minister in a country that doesn't respect freedom of speech, especially freedom of speech on the Internet," Jean-Francois Julliard, secretary-general of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, told Reuters on Thursday.
"It's difficult to see someone like that as head of UNESCO."
The minister met Julliard to defend his track record in media rights, promising that he would fight for press freedom if elected as head of UNESCO, Julliard said.
But Julliard and others remain unconvinced, creating a difficult situation for governments who like to use top U.N. posts in diplomatic horse-trading.
Egypt's delegation at UNESCO said Hosni would not comment until after the vote. UNESCO declined to comment on the case.
France is backing Egypt, a key ally in its drive for a Mediterranean Union. Other European countries such as Germany have refrained from taking sides, but diplomatic sources said the controversy could nudge them toward voting for Austrian candidate Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
The United States is reportedly working behind the scenes to prevent Hosni from winning the vote, which starts on Thursday with a first round. If there is no clear winner from the first round, further rounds will be held in coming days.
A painter who has served as culture minister for two decades, Hosni was long viewed as a front-runner to become the Arab world's first head of the Paris-based organization.
But his candidature turned into a public debacle when philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, film director Claude Lanzmann and Nobel Peace Price laureate Elie Wiesel published a column in newspaper Le Monde in May accusing him of anti-Semitism, citing the "book-burning" quote and others.
Hosni's response in the same newspaper avoided any direct reference to the quotes, but he said he had not intended to hurt anyone and that any harsh remarks of his should be placed in the context of the suffering of the Palestinian people.
In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but it has resisted warmer relations or cultural ties.