BERLIN (Reuters) - German politicians urged tough action Thursday against a surge in arson attacks on cars in Berlin, blamed by some on the far right or far left, but by the police on common criminals.
Nightly car-burnings have been going on for years in the otherwise relatively safe German capital but the number has recently surged, reaching 47 in the past three nights alone.
Mayor Klaus Wowereit said the attacks had once been politically motivated, targeting luxury cars in neighborhoods such as Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg where there are active youth scenes linked to anarchists and the far left.
"But the latest incidents are different. The fires are being lit across the area," he said.
German media have speculated the arsonists might be from the far right or left, or possibly just youths out for a thrill, raising concern that Germany might suffer violence similar to the riots seen in London and other British cities this month.
But Wowereit, who is seeking re-election in September, said the burnings had "nothing to do with" the British riots.
Already more than 130 cars have been engulfed in flames this year, similar to the annual totals since the phenomenon appeared in 2007. But Berlin police are at a loss to profile the arsonists or explain their motives.
Dieter Wiefelspuetz, member of parliament and crime expert for the center-left Social Democrats who govern Berlin, called the attacks "a precursor to terrorism." He recalled that the far-left Red Army Faction active in the 1970s and '80s began with arson and before resorting to bombings and assassinations.
RAF founder Ulrike Meinhof once said: "If one sets a car on fire, that is a criminal offence. If one sets hundreds of cars on fire, that is political action."
But the president of the German police trade union, Bernhard Witthaut, warned against reading too much into the arsonists' motives, saying this could encourage copy-cat crime.
"Anyone who talks up the arsonists as quasi terrorists is just encouraging more nights of fires and is stabbing the Berlin police in the back," he said.
Despite extra patrols and helicopter surveillance, nine vehicles were destroyed by fire in the early hours of Thursday and three damaged.
The cars appear to be chosen at random, not particularly new expensive models, in areas varying from wealthy neighborhoods like Charlottenburg in west Berlin to working-class suburbs like Neu-Hohenschoenhausen in the east.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said she believed Germany would be spared British-style riots but was "very troubled" by the arson attacks in Berlin. "What kind of behavior is this?" she asked. "People's lives are being put at risk in cold blood."
Only one person has been convicted for burning cars so far, a 43-year-old unemployed Berlin man who got a 22-month suspended jail sentence and 300 hours of community service last week for setting fire to a BMW.
A prosecutor involved in such cases, Tobias Kaehne, told Reuters that convictions for car arson were rare, partly because witnesses were hard to come by, and most cases that went to court resulted in acquittal.
Additional reporting by Hans-Edzard Busemann and Kalina Oroschakoff; Editing by David Stamp