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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

German police end march envisioned as far-right springboard

Three nationalist groups held separate daytime rallies in the city of Chemnitz

Police hold back right wing demonstrators in Chemnitz, eastern Germany. AP
Police hold back right wing demonstrators in Chemnitz, eastern Germany. AP

Police in eastern Germany halted an anti-migration protest march that far-right activists hoped would launch a nationwide movement capable of challenging the political establishment.

Three nationalist groups held separate daytime rallies on Saturday in the city of Chemnitz over the August 26 killing of a German citizen, allegedly by migrants from Syria and Iraq. The two largest groups also organised a joint night-time march, thinking a broader force might emerge from the display of unity.

But if the number of people who attended is any gauge, the envisioned far-right movement is in the earliest of embryonic stages. It drew about 4,500 participants, Saxony state police reported before citing security concerns as the reason for ending the event early.

The demonstrators screamed and whistled angrily as officers broke up the protest.

The march was stopped several times along the way as counter-protesters blocked the route and police officers sent to keep them and the marchers apart flooded into the street. The counter-protesters numbered about 4,000, the state police said.

The opposing camps also clashed in Chemnitz on Monday, the day after the fatal stabbing of the German citizen, 35, and the arrests of the migrants on suspicion of manslaughter. Scenes of vigilantes chasing foreigners in the city's streets have shocked people in others parts of Germany since then.

Police were at times unable to control the earlier protests and clashes.

Leaders of the two groups that combined forces on Saturday night cultivated a different image for the "mourning march," wearing dark suits and carrying white roses.

But the mood at the event — which brought together previously isolated clusters of nationalists, from lawmakers to Hitler-saluting skinheads — darkened as the sun set. People from both ends of the political spectrum could be seen drinking beer and shouting slurs at police.

The tension in the air reflected the polarisation over Germany's ongoing effort to come to terms with an influx of more than 1 million refugees and migrants seeking jobs since 2015.

The right blames Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to allow in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan for multiple problems. Some far-right supporters argued before the killing in Chemnitz that migrants were responsible for an increase in serious crimes, especially attacks on women.

The anti-migrant sentiment has been particularly strong in Saxony, the traditional stronghold of groups that sought to inspire a nationwide movement on Saturday night: the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, or Pegida, and the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has won seats in federal and state parliaments with an anti-Muslim platform.

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While the share of foreigners residing in Saxony remains below Germany's national average and displays of Nazi symbols are outlawed across the country, far-right sympathisers mobilised with exceptional speed on the night of the Chemnitz slaying and the days after.

Germany's Justice Minister Katarina Barley said on Saturday that authorities should investigate the role of networks from the radical far right in spearheading the week's protests.

"We do not tolerate that right-wing extremists infiltrate our society," Ms Barley told newspaper Bild am Sonntag. "It's about finding out who's behind the mobilisation of far-right criminals."

Local police appeared to have been caught unprepared when the killing triggered protests, which attracted crowds openly engaging in Nazi veneration and devolved into violence.

The protests were sparked by the fatal stabbing of Daniel Hillig. Two asylum seekers, an Iraqi, 22, and a Syrian, 23, have been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, known for his anti-migrant stance, said on Saturday he understood why "the people in Chemnitz and elsewhere are upset about the brutal killing". But he said "there's no excuse for violence", Funke Media Group reported.

"We need a strong state and we have to do everything politically to overcome the polarisation and division of our society," Mr Seehofer said.

While anti-migrant protests took place in Germany before, especially during the early 1990s, they usually met strong opposition. Artists organised concerts to raise awareness and ordinary citizens lined up in kilometres-long human chains to protest against violence against newcomers.

Chemnitz, a city known for its hardened neo-Nazi scene, at first attracted a comparatively weak response to the recent anti-migrant activity. Some 70 left-leaning and pro-migrant groups organised the "Heart not Hatred" rally that got in the way of Saturday's far-right march.

"I've a lot of experience with far-right protests in Chemnitz," said Tim Detzner, a member of the Left Party. The street riots this week "reached a level of aggression, brutality and willingness to use violence that we haven't known before".