Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) called a rally demanding Germany closes its border for refugees for “protection” after women were assaulted by crowds of men including asylum seekers.
But they were met by a huge counter-demonstration against end of sexual violence, racism and Islamophobia, while defending the right for refugees to seek safety.
Pegida’s rally was due to start at 2pm on Saturday in a city square and less than two hours later riot police had been sent in to clear the area using a water cannon and pepper spray.
Some anti-immigration demonstrators were seen setting off fireworks and launching bottles, metal barricades, rocks and even flower pots at police, the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger reported, saying officers were trying to bring the “hooligans” under control.
The group had previously put out an appeal for supporters to act as stewards to monitor the march and be able to de-escalate any situation calmly and “without violence”, asking them to wear colourful clothes “so as not to seem threatening”.
Supporters were seen waving banners reading “refugees NOT welcome”, accusing migrants of being rapists and calling on Angela Merkel to resign for her pledge to welcome Syrians earlier this year.
Several hundred metres away, the counter-demonstrators were kept behind police lines as they waved signs saying “against racism, against sexism”, “no to fascism” and “never again”, referring to the Nazis.
On its Facebook page, Pegida claimed that more than 3,000 people had attended its protest, called “Pegida protects!”.
But police put the number at around 1,700, estimating the counter-demonstration at 1,300.
Four people had been arrested by early afternoon but there were no immediate reports of injuries.
A police spokesperson said the two demonstrations had been separated in Breslauer Platz and described an “emotionally-charged atmosphere”, saying 1,700 officers had been deployed to keep the peace.
Earlier on Saturday, around a thousand women had protested outside Cologne’s famous cathedral to call for a stop to all sexual violence, including that seen on New Year’s Eve.
“No means no. Keep away from our bodies,” read one sign held by a demonstrator.
Alleged sexual assaults currently make up 40 per cent of 379 complaints from the night being investigated by police.
A leaked report written by a senior officer described “chaos beyond description” as hundreds of men, believed to be mainly migrants of North African or Arab origin, let of fireworks and attacked and robbed people in the square between Cologne’s cathedral and railway station.
Claims that some of the attackers claimed to be asylum seekers and included Syrian refugees have been seized on by far-right groups to call for an immediate stop to immigration.
The German federal police said that out of 32 people identified as sexual abuse suspects so far, 22 were in the process of seeking asylum in Germany.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, pledged today to tighten current rules that mean asylum seekers are generally only deported if they are sentenced to three years or more in prison.
“The right to asylum can be lost if someone is convicted on probation or jailed,” Ms Merkel said after a meeting with the leadership of her Christian Democrats (CDU) party.
“Serial offenders who repeatedly rob or repeatedly affront women must feel the full force of the law.”
Additional reporting by ReutersReuse content