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Merkel rebuffs conservative ally over far-right protests

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuffed comments from a conservative ally on Wednesday who had played down violence at far-right protests last week and said images of the event showed innocent people being persecuted.

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Germany has been shaken by the most violent right-wing protests in decades after the fatal stabbing of a German man in the city of Chemnitz in the state of Saxony on Aug. 26, for which two immigrants were arrested.

The Saxony government, in particular, has drawn accusations of ignoring the problem of far-right radicalism for years and conservative state premier Michael Kretschmer courted controversy on Wednesday by denying migrants had been hounded.

“There was no mob, there was no hunting down of people, there was no pogrom in this city,” he told the state assembly.

Asked about the comments at a news conference with the Czech prime minister, Merkel disagreed with her fellow Christian Democratic Union member, saying:

“We saw pictures that very clearly revealed hate and ... the persecution of innocent people. One must distance oneself from that. That is all there is to say.”

Merkel has drawn criticism for not visiting the scene of the protests, where skinheads hurled fireworks and bottles, chased migrants and made the illegal Nazi salute but her spokesman has said she will go to Chemnitz. No date is set.

With her open-doors migrant policy blamed for the rise of the far-right AfD party and movements like the anti-Muslim PEGIDA group, Merkel is keen to avoid major political fallout from the protests.

Next month her conservative allies in the state of Bavaria face a tough challenge from the AfD in a vote and after that comes a state election in Hesse.

The far-right AfD, which has gained in polls since last week’s protests and even overtaken the Social Democrats in one survey, lambasted Merkel and her spokesman for their reactions to the protests.

Senior AfD member Joerg Meuthen said Kretschmer had, belatedly, established the facts but Merkel and her spokesman had damaged the image of Saxony and Germany abroad with their assertions about mobs and chases.

Asked about this in a government news conference, a spokeswoman said: “It remains the case that video recordings that we saw show how people with a foreign background were pursued and threatened”.

Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Reporting by Madeline Chambers