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Three alleged arsonists accused of a xenophobic attack appear before court

Prosecutors have started hearings in an attempted murder trial, accusing three defendants of arson on a refugee shelter. The trial is the first addressing the sharp rise in xenophobic attacks since the refugee crisis.

Deutschland Prozess Brandanschlag Salzhemmendorf

Wednesday was the first of an intended four court appearances in the case

Three people stand accused of attempted murder as well as arson after allegedly throwing an improvised petrol bomb through a window at an asylum-seekers' home in northern Germany. The alleged assailants in the case, two men aged 25 and 31, and a woman aged 24, have admitted to setting fire to a refugee center in Salzhemmendorf, located in Lower Saxony about 45 kilometers (28 miles) southeast of the state capital Hanover.

Authorities said there were up to 40 individuals in the building at the time of the attack on August 28, 2015. A Zimbabwean woman and her three children managed to narrowly escape the flames. Her defense lawyer Sebastian Piontek told the DPA news agency at the start of the trial that the 35-year-old woman was still suffering a great deal of anxiety since the attack.

"She came here to Germany only to suffer a second trauma," Piontek said, referring to what had moved her to seek asylum in Germany in the first place.

A drunken assault

The two men, 31-year-old Dennis L. and 25-year-old Sascha D., had reportedly consumed considerable amounts of alcohol before the assault, saying in court that they would never have partaken in the crime if they had not been intoxicated. The woman, identified as 24-year-old Saskia B., however, had reportedly remained sober throughout, driving the other two defendants in the case to the refugee shelter and back.

The case sparked further controversy when one of the defendants turned out to be a voluntary firefighter, who after fleeing the crime scene had allegedly returned with his fire brigade to take part in efforts to extinguish the flames.

The case is expected to involve four court dates at the district court in Hanover. The defendants could each face imprisonment for up to 15 years.

Surge in xenophobic attacks

It's been about six months now since the first major arson attack on refugee accommodation since new arrivals began coming in larger numbers last summer. But German authorities say they have recorded a surge in attacks against refugees and asylum seekers over the past year.

Most of the attacks are believed to have been carried out by individuals with no previous affiliation to far-right groups; however, police in Germany are paying particular attention to the possibility of organized movements surfacing amid the rise in xenophobic and racist assaults.

In a separate trial for a planned attack near Leipzig, which had been earmarked for early 2015 but was never carried, four defendants stand accused to have created a far-right group called "Oldschool Society" (OSS) with the intention of carrying out terror attacks.

ss/msh (dpa, epd, AP)

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