COTTBUS, Germany (Reuters) - Arab refugees and Germans carrying pro-immigrant and anti-fascism placards marched in Cottbus on Saturday to denounce what they say are attempts by far-right groups to stoke tension in the eastern city after two knife attacks by Syrian teenagers.
“We want to stop this hate between Germans and Arab refugees,” said Ahmad al-Barqouni, a 28-year-old Syrian student, marching through the city with around 1,500 other people.
“Some people made mistakes but not everyone should pay the price for it,” he added, referring to the knife attacks.
Police beefed up security in the city of 100,000 near the Polish border, where the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) beat Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives in an election last year by appealing to voters angry with her decision in 2015 to welcome more than a million asylum seekers.
Residents and members of far-right groups carrying anti-Islam banners held a counter march through the city a few hours later to protest against what they say is rising crime by migrants.
More than 3,000 people shouted “Merkel must go!”, “We are the people!” and “Lying press!” in a main square before marching peacefully through the city escorted by riot police.
Addressing the crowd through a loud speaker, one organizer urged the demonstrators not to talk to journalists covering the march: “Look, smile, but don’t touch!” she said.
Last month, two Syrian teenagers injured a 16-year-old German boy with a knife and a group of three Syrians aged under 17 threatened a German couple with a knife outside a mall in Cottbus.
The attacks prompted almost weekly demonstrations by residents opposed to more migrants arriving in Cottbus. The interior ministry of Brandenburg, the federal state in which Cottbus lies, stopped sending refugees to the city last month.
“We are here to make a clear stance against a rightist hate campaign,” said Lea Bunke, a 25-year-old German student at the first march, adding that the knife attacks by Syrian teenagers did not justify demands by some residents that all refugees leave the city.
She said Cottbus residents should be more alarmed by a rise in xenophobic attacks against refugees.
Anxiety about immigration is high in Cottbus, as in many eastern regions in Germany, where older generations grew up under communism, having little contact with foreigners.
Hans-Christoph Berndt, leader of ‘Zukunft Heimat’ or Future Homeland, an umbrella group that has been organizing anti-immigrant protests, said his supporters were protesting against the government’s immigration policy, not against migrants.
“The media have been misrepresenting us,” Berndt said. “We are protesting against the decision to welcome everyone. There aren’t enough police, not enough kindergarten places and not enough teachers. We are demanding that Merkel step down.”
Police on Wednesday arrested six members of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) - which Germany’s Constitutional Court last year said resembled Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party - who were handing out tear gas and flyers to Cottbus residents.
The city’s technical university draws hundreds of international students each year, and the influx of foreigners and refugees has prevented the population from shrinking below 100,000 from about 145,000 on the eve of German reunification in 1990.
Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Andrew Bolton