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Germany

Berlin Gears Up For May Day Protests

As Berlin braces itself for annual May Day protests and violence, authorities are sending out a clear message to potential rioters -- 8,000 police officers with orders to crack down swiftly on troublemakers.

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A police officer checks out a punk's rucksack in Berlin on the eve of May 1.

It's the time of the year when all hell breaks loose in Berlin and neighborhoods like Turkish-dominated Kreuzberg become urban battle grounds, complete with burning cars, smashed shop windows and violent clashes between police and rampaging teenagers.

May Day rioting has become a tradition in Berlin, harking back to May 1, 1987, when left-wing demonstrators first took to the streets to protest against what they called a "bourgeois" celebration of the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin.

Since then, the rioting has returned to Berlin with unfailing regularity each year, first in West Berlin and then following German reunification in 1990, in both halves of the united city.

Tougher, quicker action

This year however, city authorities and police are clear they plan to put an end to the violence that mars the largely peaceful May Day demonstrations and festive atmosphere of the street fairs and parties that dot Berlin's historic center near the Brandenburg Gate, the hip eastern neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg as well as its western neighbor, the Kreuzberg district.

Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit, whose administration has used a "soft glove" approach in the past, has said that the police will crack down on rioters this year.

Berlin's Interior Minister Erhart Körting has announced that the police on Saturday will take swifter and tougher action against vandals and rioters than last year and also keep a watch on small groups of rowdy teenagers in Kreuzberg on May Day eve to preempt any rioting.

A strenuous week for the police

May Day will mark the culmination of a difficult week for Berlin's police, who have had to provide security for a series of high-profile events, starting with the two-day OSCE anti-Semitism conference on April 28 and 29. The conference welcomed, among other dignitaries, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

Polizei vor der USA Botschaft in Berlin

Police in Berlin

Police reinforcements were called in from other German states to assist local police, taking the total count of police officers to around 15,000 this past week, turning downtown Berlin into a virtual fortress.

On Friday night before May Day, police will be kept busy as several hundred high-ranking officials from all across Europe converge on Berlin's central Gendarmen Markt square to take part in ceremonies marking the expansion of the European Union by ten new members.

The night before May Day is also celebrated in Germany as Walpurgisnacht, a pagan ritual to usher in the Spring, but which is also used as an occasion by leftist young people in Berlin to go on a violent, often drunken rampages in the Prenzlauer Berg district. Police cars usually begin parking outside the park by early evening.

Angry protests set to heighten demonstrations

Despite the heightened security measures and the heightened police presence--some 8,000 will be on the streets--officials admit that this year's demonstrations are likely to take on an even angrier tone than usual.

Warnstreik bei den Banken

An estimated 200,000 trade unionists plan to take part in traditional May Day parades through the heart of the city to protest the federal government's cuts in health care, social services and retirement pensions.

"This will contribute to a greater emotional and political edge to the demonstrations," Interior Minister Körting told the daily Berliner Zeitung. "It would be naïve to believe that these days will pass peacefully."

In addition, some 2,500 Neo-Nazis plan to hold a rally in eastern Berlin, with leftist counter-demonstrators vowing to stop them, setting the scene for possible clashes.

Berlin Police President Dieter Glietsch has confirmed that the police will be more visible on May Day this year and will clamp down on rioters.

"We've had enough"

Though the prospect of violence looms large on Saturday, organizers of the various street festivals and parades remain undeterred.

Maikrawall in Berlin

burnt-out cars in Kreuzberg

Silke Fischer, organizer of the famous "Myfest" food and music festival around the Oranien street in Kreuzberg told the Berliner Zeitung that residents had had enough of "their cars being set ablaze and it being called a revolution."

She added: "For years we've been watching teenagers reduce an entire district to ashes. That just can't go on."

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