Mistakes admitted in effort to end Rostock riots: John Eisenhammer in Bonn describes the dilemma that east German police face in attempting to quell anti-immigrant unrest

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The Independent Online
ON THE fifth night of street rioting in Rostock, finally, the police got on top of the extreme-right thugs. Stung by nation-wide accusations of incompetence, and having promised a 'hard-as-nails approach', they moved in quickly, with massive reinforcements of special riot police, encircled the petrol bomb-throwing hordes, and restored a semblance of order.

In the minds of many, it was precisely what should have been done at the outset. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's right-hand man in the Christian Democrats, Wolfgang Schauble said: 'The police behaviour did little to underpin the citizen's confidence in the effectiveness of the state.'

On all sides, it is admitted 'mistakes were made'. If the police had acted speedily and decisively, there is a good chance that the rioting around the refugee hostel on the council estate of Rostock-Lichtenhagen would not have increased into the worst racist violence since unification.

There are several explanations for the insufficient security, none of them comforting for the authorities. The first is that they were unprepared for this sort of violence. Certainly, in Communist times, the East German police had little experience of this sort of street-fighting.

The first shocking assault on a foreigner hostel, when local inhabitants also stood around cheering on neo-Nazis, occurred nearly a year ago, in the eastern German town of Hoyerswerda. Then, stunned politicians said the warnings would be heeded and the unprepared eastern police would be properly trained and equipped; such events, which shamed Germany in the eyes of the world, would not happen again. We have heard exactly the same phrases over the past few days.

A second, and more telling explanation, is that the police feel constrained in their use of the big stick. For unlike Hoyerswerda, the police in Rostock had the necessary anti-riot equipment. But there is a strong aversion in eastern Germany among the authorities to adopt tough measures which are felt to be reminiscent of the strong-arm Communist state. This insecurity is not helped by the wariness now prevalent among western German forces, such as the riot-police reinforcements brought into Rostock from Berlin and Hamburg.

The western German police have been badly burnt by the strong public outcries, and in the case of Hamburg, condemnation by court, following the bitter confrontations of the Eighties against left-wing demonstrators.

But there is another, more serious, explanation for the police failures in Rostock. It is not just the local police who, in those early, crucial stages of the violence, were constrained by obvious sympathies with the antiforeigner sentiments of the crowd.

The conservative state and city politicians were even more fearful of upsetting the populace. The first reaction to the riots by the CDU Interior Minister of Mecklenburg, Lothar Kupfer, in which he expressed 'certain understanding' for the thugs and the crowds that cheered them on, was revealing.

The Christian Democrats have a shaky hold on power in Mecklenburg, and they were not about to shake it any more by contradicting the mood on the streets. By the time shock had stiffened the politicians' resolve, it was too late.

ERFURT - The east German state of Thuringia suffered its second political crisis this year as two ministers resigned after being accused of taking bribes, AFP reports.

The two were the Interior Minister, Willibald Boeck, and the Minister for Social Affairs, Hans- Henning Axthelm, both members of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, which governs the state in coalition with the Liberals. The state Prime Minister, Bernhard Vogel, said he was accepting their resignations as they bore 'political responsibility' for the scandal.