Merkel, German intel chief clash on 'foreigner hunt' reports

Berlin (AFP) –


The head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency Friday raised doubts about reports of a "hunt on foreigners" by neo-Nazi mobs in a flashpoint city last month, directly contradicting Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Weighing in on an issue that has reignited the immigration debate in the country, agency chief Hans-Georg Maassen told the daily Bild that he had "no proof that the video circulating on the internet" showing foreign-looking people being accosted and chased "is authentic".

"I share the scepticism about media reports of right-wing extremist foreigner hunts in Chemnitz," the eastern city that has seen several far-right rallies since the killing of a German man, allegedly by asylum seekers, in late August.

"Based on my cautious assessment, there are good reasons to believe that this was intentional false information, possibly to detract attention from the murder in Chemnitz," Maassen said.

Extremist groups and thousands of local citizens took to the streets in the days after the fatal stabbing, with a number of participants shouting anti-foreigner slurs and flashing the illegal Nazi salute.

In a spasm of violence that shocked the country, marauding mobs also assaulted reporters and police.

During the first demonstration on August 26, a freelance journalist working for respected weekly Die Zeit posted two videos on Twitter showing demonstrators running after foreign-looking people.

They were widely picked up by media outlets.

- 'Hate in the streets' -

Police said that several people have come forward saying they were assaulted, including a Syrian, a Bulgarian and an Afghan.

Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert quickly condemned the scenes from Chemnitz, including speaking of protesters "hunting down" foreigners.

Merkel herself has repeatedly used the phrase in the ensuing heated debate, saying "hate in the streets" has no place in Germany.

However, this week the premier of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, pushed back against the accounts of events in his state, telling the regional assembly there had been "no mob, no hunting of foreigners and no pogroms".

Maassen's comments drew fire from the government and the opposition Greens, who called them "frankly absurd" and a "frontal attack against Angela Merkel".

Thomas Oppermann of the Social Democrats, junior partners in Merkel's "grand coalition" government, accused Maassen of failing to take threats to public safety seriously.

"We saw the images, we heard from witnesses. We saw how people openly showed the Nazi salute," he told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

Stephan Harbarth, an interior affairs expert with Merkel's Christian Democrats, demanded Maassen "explain where his doubts are actually coming from" on the veracity of the video.

- 'Mother of all problems' -

Later Friday, the far-right group "Pro Chemnitz" was to hold another rally in Chemnitz, followed by a concert with counter-protesters called "Stronger Together" urging support for "openness and diversity".

The highly unusual open clash between the interpretation of events between Merkel and Maassen comes as the so-called Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) has faced scrutiny over its handling of two high-profile cases.

Critics accuse the BfV of failing to follow up on key leads in the investigation of a neo-Nazi cell that murdered 10 mainly immigrant victims, and in the run-up to a deadly truck attack against a Christmas market in Berlin in 2016.

It also emerges as a tense truce within Merkel's government over immigration that had held since July began to crumble over a string of widely publicised crimes allegedly committed by foreigners.

On Thursday, Merkel's hardline interior minister Horst Seehofer, her most vocal critic within the cabinet, defended the Chemnitz protests and blasted immigration as "the mother of all political problems".

A new poll Friday indicated that Germans are dubious about Merkel's migration policy, with 69 percent saying in a survey for public broadcaster ARD that they think integration of newcomers is not working.

Merkel in 2015 left the border open to more than one million asylum seekers when other EU states moved to shut them out -- a policy that sharply divided German voters.