Far-right, anti-fascist protests end peacefully in German city

CHEMNITZ, Germany (Reuters) - German police in the eastern city of Chemnitz on Saturday halted a march by far-right groups protesting last weekend’s fatal stabbing of a man, allegedly by two migrants, after a few dozen anti-fascist demonstrators tried to barge toward the crowd.

Some 6,000 supporters of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and the anti-Islam PEGIDA group were stopped by riot police near a massive bust of Karl Marx in the city center, prompting angry shouts of “Resistance!”

Thousands had earlier joined a rival demonstration in Chemnitz organized by leftist groups who accuse the AfD and PEGIDA of exploiting the stabbing of the 35-year-old German man to stoke hatred against migrants and refugees.

Skinheads clashed with police in Chemnitz soon after a Syrian and an Iraqi were identified as the main suspects in the killing, exposing bitter divisions over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal immigration policy.

On Saturday, riot police chased black-clad anti-fascist protesters who had tried to make their way toward the far-right crowd whose members waved the German flag, sang the national anthem and shouted, “Merkel must go!”

Soon after, dozens of far-right protesters ignored police orders to stay put and made their way past a line of police cars blocking a major street in the city centre to prevent the rival marches from crossing paths.

Riot police were seen making arrests, but the tense standoff ended without violence, keeping the police’s truck-mounted water cannon dry.

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Merkel’s decision in 2015 to welcome a million people seeking asylum, mainly Muslims from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, has dramatically changed Germany’s political and social landscape.

The AfD, which says Islam is incompatible with the German constitution, entered the national parliament for first time in an election last year, securing third place after stealing voters from Merkel’s conservatives.

After the stabbing in Chemnitz, AfD leaders said the far-right riots that followed were understandable.

Images of skinheads raising their arms in Nazi salutes, chasing anyone they saw as outsiders and wrestling with riot police shocked many Germans.

The leaking of the arrest warrant for one of the two stabbing suspects to PEGIDA raised concerns that some justice officials in the state of Saxony, where Chemnitz is located, were sympathetic to the far right.

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Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose center-left Social Democrats (SPD) hold the mayor’s office in Chemnitz and helped organize Saturday’s leftist march, said on Twitter that Germans had a special duty to stand up against any form of fascism.

“When people are once again roaming our streets with the Hitler salute, our history mandates us to stand up for democracy,” he wrote.

Grievances over Merkel’s liberal immigration policy are stronger in the east of Germany, where unemployment is higher and anti-immigrant attitudes are more common than in the west.

Merkel, who on Friday wrapped up a three-day visit to Africa, has not yet commented on the events in Chemnitz, near the Czech border.

“Where is she? Traveling in Africa,” said a grey-haired man addressing the anti-immigrant crowd. “She should come here and face us citizens.”

At the counter-demonstration across town, a woman in her 50s who declined to give her name asked: “Who was the stabbing victim? The far right is exploiting his death by saying: ‘A German has been murdered.’ But he was an anti-fascist and people outside the city don’t know that.”

German police have said little about the man and the circumstances surrounding his death.

As both demonstrations started to disperse, the Saxony police wrote on its Twitter account: “The overwhelming majority are behaving peacefully. For those looking for trouble we say that we remain heavily deployed in the city and we repeat our request: stay peaceful!”

Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Ros Russell and Andrew Roche