The German capital has seen a third day of demonstrations over a new center for asylum seekers. The protests could bring the issue of immigration more to the fore as general elections loom.
A small group of right-wing anti-immigrant protesters met on Wednesday with some 600 counterdemonstrators who came out in support of asylum seekers staying in a newly opened refugee shelter in the eastern Berlin suburb of Hellersdorf.
The demonstration, called by the far-right, anti-Islam "Pro Deutschland" group, remained peaceful. Only some 10 group members attended the protest.
The demonstration on Tuesday evening was called by the right-extremist National Democratic Party (NPD). Some 40 of its members faced off with more than 500 anti-fascist protesters.
The violence occurred when the counterdemonstrators, who were blocking a tramline nearby, became involved in a melee with police. The right-wingers later left by tram under police protection.
Weeks of protest
The focus of the protests is a shelter for asylum seekers housed in a four-story former school in a housing estate in the low-income area of Hellersdorf. Some 80 political asylum seekers are currently accommodated there, the first of them having arrived on Monday under heavy police protection. Some are said to have already left again for fear of violence.
Most of the refugees come from war-torn Afghanistan and Syria as well as Serbia. Altogether 200 are expected at the center.
Protests against the site have been going on for weeks, with some other residents of the area saying they were informed too late of the plans for the center.
Berlin 'open to the world'
Berlin's Mayor Klaus Wowereit has condemned the racist sentiments, saying it was "unbearable how right-wing demagogues are trying to sow fear."
"Berlin is a city that is open to the world, and that's why we must allow no space for xenophobia."
Conflicts in Syria and other parts of the world have led to a 90 percent rise in the number of asylum seekers in Germany this year compared to the same period in 2012. So far, 52,754 have sought asylum in the country in 2013. Only 15 per cent were officially recognized as refugees in the first half of the year.
Although immigration has not been a major theme in the campaign ahead of September 22 general elections, some voices are urging that more attention be devoted to the issue.
Wolfgang Bosbach, a conservative in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has urged local, state and national leaders to hold crisis talks, and warned that extremists would exploit the issue.
Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has also warned that "these people [asylum seekers] must not be exploited by right-wing extremists for their propaganda of hatred."
tj/rc (dpa, AFP)