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Slovakia's president sues leading party's chief before election

FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's President Zelenskiy visits Slovakia

(Reuters) - President Zuzana Caputova has sued the head of Slovakia's leading political party for spreading lies about her, the presidential office said on Wednesday, weeks before an election that could cause a sharp turn in foreign policy.

Slovakia holds a parliamentary election on Sept. 30 with issues like illegal migration and the war in neighbouring Ukraine polarising society.

Robert Fico, a former prime minister whose SMER-SSD party tops polls, has pledged to defend national interests, end military support for Ukraine and oppose any sanctions on Russia that could hurt Slovakia.

On Wednesday, with campaigning heating up, his party called on the government to start border checks to halt an increasing flow of migrants crossing from Hungary to Western Europe.

Caputova, a former human rights lawyer who won a 2019 presidential election on her graft-fighting credentials, has been a frequent target for Fico's SMER-SSD party. Fico has claimed, without proof, that she was a U.S. puppet and stood for interests of U.S. financier George Soros.

"The president is aware that as a public figure she is obliged to take a higher level of criticism," Caputova's office said in a statement.

"But she is not obliged to put up with escalating public bullying and unwarranted accusations," the statement said.

"She considers such rhetoric without a factual basis to be a deliberate abuse of freedom of speech in order to incite hatred towards a person," it added.

Fico's SMER-SSD party did not reply immediately to a request for comment.

Caputova has been a voice in favour of European integration, minority rights and a supporter of neighbouring Ukraine in its defence against Russia. She is the most popular Slovak politician, according to polls, but said in June she would not seek a second term.

She flagged legal action against Fico earlier this year after saying both she and her family had received death threats.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet in Prague; Editing by Christina Fincher)