(May 6, 2002 Posted: 1927 GMT)

Fortuyn has sparked controversy in The Netherlands with his far-right views    

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (CNN) -- Maverick Dutch right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn has been shot dead, nine days before a general election in which his party was expected to make big gains.

Fortuyn, 54, was shot in the head and chest at least three times at close range at 6 p.m. on Monday as he was leaving a Dutch national radio station after giving an interview in Hilversum, a town 20 km (12 miles) southeast of Amersterdam.

Hours after the shooting, Fortuyn's body lay where he was shot, covered with a white sheet. Prime Minister Wim Kok confirmed Fortuyn's death.

His death -- which came just a day after French extreme-right anti-immigration crusader Jean-Marie Le Pen was defeated in a presidential election run-off -- was officially announced later in the evening by Prime Minister Wim Kok.

"After this assassination, Pim Fortuyn is gone," Kok said in The Hague after breaking off a campaign engagement. "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."

A man who was believed to have been carrying a gun is reported to have been arrested outside the Media Park in Hilversum.

Journalist Sander Van Hoorn told CNN: "Fortuyn was shot in the head, just behind his left ear, and in his neck and chest.

"Police have been searching for a single gunman, who was wearing a baseball cap. A police helicopter joined the search.

Emergency workers attempted to revive Fortuyn after the shotting    
"People witnessed the gunman open fire and four people are reported to have chased after him."

Fortuyn's spokesman Mat Herben told Reuters the cigar-chomping politician had received regular death threats. Most Dutch political leaders travel without bodyguards, often using public transport. The only exceptions were Kok, as head of government. Fortuyn, however, had his own bodyguards and his party headquarters in Rotterdam were always guarded.

Opinion polls had shown that Fortuyn and his newly formed Pim Fortuyn's List party, running on an anti-immigration platform, was on course to win about 15 percent of the vote in May 15 parliamentary elections. CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley said Fortuyn might have been part of the coalition government.

Fortuyn's rise mirrors a right-wing resurgence in several European countries, lately highlighted by Le Pen's surprise showing in the first round of French presidential elections. Le Pen was soundly defeated in Sunday's run-off vote by incumbent Jacques Chirac.

Oakley, who was in the Netherlands on his way to interview the politician, said: "Fortuyn was part of a new wave of Dutch politicians. He ran on an anti-immigration platform, but insisted he was not like Le Pen.

"He said he wanted nothing to do with Le Pen, but said the Netherlands was 'full up' with 16 million people. Although he said he did not want to deport immigrants, he was critical of Muslims for not joining in Dutch life, and wanted to restrict benefits to people who can speak Dutch."

Oakley said Fortuyn was a former Marxist sociology professor and a newspaper columnist who was "out of the staid style of Dutch politics. He was homosexual and drove around in a car with blacked out windows."

Fortuyn's platform seemed out of place in the Netherlands, which has a reputation for liberalism. It was the first country to legalise gay marriages, regulate prostitution, approve and control euthanasia, and tolerate the over-the-counter sale of marijuana in hundreds of "coffee shops."

Although tolerant of such subcultures, Fortuyn's popularity has exposed a deep vein of suspicion of immigrants in Europe's most densely populated country, about two million of whose 16 million people are not native Dutch. About 800,000 are Muslims.

He said: "I'm not anti-Muslim. I'm not anti-immigrant. I'm saying we've got big problems in our cities.

"It's not very smart to make the problems bigger by letting in millions more immigrants from rural Muslim cultures that don't assimilate. This country is bursting. I think 16 million people is quite enough."

Fortuyn was founder of Leefbaar Nederland, which stunned the Netherlands in March when it won 35 percent of the vote for city council seats in Rotterdam, the second-largest city, The Associated Press reports. Although he no longer leads the party, polls project that it could win 24 seats in the 150-member parliament in May 15 national elections.