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German protesters stop neo-Nazi march in Dresden

DRESDEN, Germany (Reuters) - At least 10,000 Germans formed a human chain in Dresden on Saturday and stopped neo-Nazis staging a funeral march to remember victims of the Allied air raid that flattened the city 65 years ago.

About 5,000 neo-Nazis, clad in black, had gathered at Dresden’s Neustadt station -- where Nazis once packed trains with Jews bound for the Auschwitz concentration camp -- hoping to stage Germany’s biggest far-right march since 1945.

In the past few years, the February 13 anniversary of the destruction of Dresden, in which 25,000 people were killed, has become a focus for neo-Nazis who describe the blanket bombardment as a “bombing Holocaust.”

But large numbers of anti-neo-Nazi protesters, who turned out despite freezing temperatures, stopped the far-right sympathizers from getting into the town center.

“Stopping the Nazi march was a great success for the Nazi Free Alliance Dresden,” said Alliance spokeswoman Lena Roth.

“It wasn’t easy -- there were people injured in Nazi attacks and it was horribly cold, but it was worth it,” she said.

Police reported isolated clashes between the two sides and at one point the 5,000-strong police force, with reinforcements drafted in from across Germany, used water cannons.

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A spokesman said officers had made seven arrests but the violence police had feared appeared to have been avoided after organizers declared the far-right gathering over in the late afternoon and supporters gradually dispersed.

Some waved black, white and red flags and wore T-shirts with militaristic symbols. Others wore garments with pictures of Lancaster bombers with the slogan “Saviours of Democracy?”

“We are gathered here to remember one of the biggest war crimes of World War Two,” Kai Pfuerstinger, deputy head of the far-right JLO Youth Corps East Germany, told the crowd earlier.

A debate about whether breaking public morale through the raids was justifiable has rumbled since the bombing, which started on the night of February 13, 1945, and flattened the city. The defeat of Hitler’s Nazis was imminent.

The wave of attacks, by British and U.S. bombers, used incendiary bombs which created an inferno that ripped through streets, burning and melting people and buildings alike.

Although a mainstream debate has taken place in the past few years about the extent to which Germans can view themselves as victims of a war they were responsible for, there is little sympathy for the views of militaristic neo-Nazi groups.

“February 13th, the day of the bombardment of Dresden, is abused by the right as a myth of sacrifice,” said Wolfhart Goll of the Nazi Free Alliance.

Dresden has only in the last decade been restored to its former glory, complete with its trove of cultural treasures.

Senior politicians from Dresden and the state of Saxony and a representative of the Central Council of Jews laid wreaths at a cemetery where the victims of the bombardment are remembered.

Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Louise Ireland