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BERLIN (Reuters) - About 1,000 police raided scores of buildings across Germany on Thursday in a clampdown on radical Salafist Islamists suspected of plotting against the state.
German officials fear the Salafists, who trace their roots to Saudi Arabia and want to establish Sharia (Islamic) law in Europe, are fuelling militancy among a small minority of socially alienated young Muslims in Germany.
Announcing the crackdown, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said he had banned one of the Salafists' groups called the Millatu Ibrahim and said the raids may unearth evidence that would allow the outlawing of two other associations.
"(The Millatu Ibrahim group) works against our constitutional order and against understanding between peoples," Friedrich told reporters.
German authorities have recently stepped up their monitoring of ultra-conservative Salafist groups following a series of violent clashes with police.
In May Salafists turned on police protecting far-right anti-Islam protesters during a regional election rally in the west German city of Bonn, injuring 29 officers, two of them badly.
The far-right protesters had infuriated the Salafists by waving cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.
Salafists are believed to number about 4,000 in Germany, which has a total Muslim population of some four million, but they are the fastest growing Islamic group in the country.
Thursday's raids targeted about 70 apartments and communal houses of Salafists in Berlin, Hamburg and other cities.
Among the homes targeted was that of radical preacher Ibrahim Abu Nagie, who is associated with a campaign to distribute free copies of the Koran that German officials fear could contribute to radicalisation of young Muslims.
"Today's operation shows we are raising the pressure on the Salafists and are acting with resolve against their anti-democratic behaviour," Spiegel Online quoted Ralf Jaeger, the interior minister of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, as saying.
Friedrich said last month Germany was considering a legal ban on all Salafist groups, saying they were "ideologically close to al Qaeda" and bent on destroying liberal democracy.
But despite the prominence of Germany in the saga of al Qaeda due to Hamburg's role as a base for three of the September 11 suicide airline hijackers, its indigenous militant scene is much smaller than that in Britain or France, security experts say.
Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Louise Ireland