DRESDEN/BERLIN (Reuters) - Far-right groups spread “fake news” on social media to mobilise their supporters for violent protests targeting migrants after the fatal stabbing of a German man, said officials in the eastern German state of Saxony where they took place.
German police have arrested a 22-year-old Syrian man and a 21-year-old Iraqi man over Sunday’s stabbing in the town of Chemnitz, which provoked two days of protests, including clashes between far-right and leftist demonstrators.
The stabbing and the protests have exposed deep divisions in German society over the influx of more than one million migrants, mostly Muslims fleeing Middle East conflicts, after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to let them in.
On Tuesday Merkel repeated her condemnation of both the stabbing and the protests, saying scenes - depicted in amateur video clips - of migrants being chased through the streets were completely unacceptable in a state based on the rule of law.
Michael Kretschmer, the premier of Saxony and a close Merkel ally, vowed to deal firmly with extremists in his state, long a hotbed of support for far-right parties.
“We believe that at least some of the calls that were circulated online (to join the protests) were based on false information, on fake news,” he told a news conference in the state capital Dresden.
For example, a report circulated widely on social media that the 35-year-old man who was stabbed had been defending a woman from migrants, adding that there was no evidence to support the claim, Kretschmer said.
Local authorities were bracing for further demonstrations in Dresden and Chemnitz on Tuesday, and German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said federal police stood ready to provide additional assistance if needed in Saxony.
Saxony’s interior minister, Roland Woeller, said the protests had drawn far-right supporters and anarchist groups from Berlin, nearby states of Brandenburg and Thuringia and as far away as North-Rhine Westphalia in northwestern Germany.
“We saw a significant mobilisation effect – that means that anarchists travelled from far beyond the region and state borders, especially right-wing violent actors ... from the hooligan scene and from the football scene,” he told reporters.
At least five people are facing charges for performing the ‘Hitler salute’, which is banned in Germany, and a comprehensive investigation is continuing, police officials said.
They also said nearly 20 people had been injured in Monday’s demonstrations, where fireworks were thrown.
German security officials are monitoring the situation in close consultation with state officials at a special command centre for combating far-right activism in Cologne, security sources told Reuters.
Many far-right supporters in Chemnitz joined a small but growing party called “Third Way” after a Nazi-inspired group was banned about four years ago. The new party is also under observation by intelligence agencies, according to the latest report by the BfV domestic intelligence agency.
“The fact that we have a Syrian and an Iraqi suspect is no reason - no reason at all - for a general suspicion of all foreign residents,” said Kretschmer.
“We need a jolt in Germany and Saxony. We need broad public support to win this fight.”
Additional reporting by Martin Schlicht in Dresden and Paul Carrel in Berlin