'Merkel out!': PEGIDA supporters vent fury after Cologne attacks
Chanting "Merkel out" and waving German flags, supporters of the xenophobic PEGIDA movement vented their anger on Saturday against refugees after a rash of sexual assaults in the western city of Cologne.
Carrying banners and signs bearing slogans like "Rapefugees not welcome", the far-right protesters took aim at Merkel, accusing her of allowing migrants to running amok in Germany through her liberal stance towards those fleeing war.
Police fired tear gas and used water cannon to clear PEGIDA supporters, while protesters hurled firecrackers and bottles at officers.
Sirens wailed and police told peaceful protesters to leave as they deployed water cannon to disperse an increasingly agitated crowd.
"Merkel has become a danger to our country. Merkel must go," a member of PEGIDA told the crowd, which echoed the call.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday called for stricter laws to expel convicted refugees, as clashes erupted at far-right protests in Cologne over a rash of sexual assaults blamed on asylum seekers.
Vowing tough action, Merkel declared that any refugee handed a conviction - even if it was a suspended sentence - should be kicked out of the country.
"If the law does not suffice, then the law must be changed," she said.
Witnesses have described the perpetrators of the assaults in Cologne on the night of 31 December as people with "North African or Arab" appearance.
Federal police have said that a majority of the suspects identified so far are of foreign origin, inflaming a debate over Germany's ability to integrate the 1.1 million asylum seekers it took in last year alone.
"These women who fell victim will have to live with it for a long time. I feel like my freedom has been robbed from me," a mother of four introduced as Christiane told the rally.
"That's impossible. Frau Merkel, Frau Reker, you are women! Where is your solidarity? What are women worth in this society?" she said, referring to Henriette Reker, who is mayor of Cologne, and who was stabbed in the neck last October by a man with a far-right background.
"We are the people," chanted the crowd as they began marching away from the train station. "Those who don't love this country should disappear," they shouted.
Some also heckled the line of police officers standing guard, saying: "Where, where, where were you on New Year's eve?"
A helicopter circled overhead and an occasional firecracker went off, adding to tensions as leftist demonstrators staged a counter-protest.
Kept at bay from the PEGIDA crowd by police they chanted "Nazis raus!" (Nazis out!).
"There is nothing right about Nazi propaganda," said a slogan on the sign held up by one protester, while another read "Fascism is not an opinion, it is a crime".
"We are there to tell them to shut up. It is unacceptable for PEGIDA to exploit this horrible sexual violence perpetrated here on New Year's Day and to spread their racist nonsense," said Emily Michels, 28.
Half-a-dozen Iraqi and Syrian refugees were also part of the counter-demonstration group, with a Jordan-born woman running their local shelter, Dana Khamis, saying they had joined in the rally after hearing about the attacks.
"I told them that the demonstration is about women's rights and against sexism and against faciscm, and they said they wanted absolutely to be part of it," said Khamis, 27.
PEGIDA started life over a year ago as a xenophobic Facebook group, initially drawing just a few hundred protesters to demonstrations in the eastern city of Dresden before gaining strength, peaking with rallies of 25,000 people.
Interest subsequently began to wane following overtly racist comments by founder Lutz Bachmann and the surfacing of "selfies" in which he sported a Hitler moustache and hairstyle.
But PEGIDA has seen a revival with the record influx of migrants to Germany.