Neo-Nazis set fire to hostel

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The Independent Online
FOR THE third night running, neo-Nazi thugs and skinheads fought running street battles with riot police attempting to prevent them storming a refugee hostel in the east German port city of Rostock. Late last night, after an unusually brutal confrontation, the police pulled back, seemingly powerless, leaving the young rioters to take over the building. More than 80 policemen were injured.

Hours earlier, the mainly Romanian refugees had been evacuated from the hostel. Part of the building was in flames as up to 700 rioters, egged on by several thousand onlookers, hurled petrol bombs, rocks and flares, chanting 'Germany for the Germans'. As on the previous night, the local inhabitants had deliberately obstructed the police action and tried to protect the rioters.

Earlier a shocked Bonn government had condemned the resurgence of the xenophobic violence. Ministers appealed to the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) to co-operate speedily on a constitutional amendment to staunch the flow of foreigners. This followed the ground-breaking decision by the SPD leadership on Sunday to abandon its hostility to any tightening of the constitutional provision on asylum.

Police spraying water cannon and tear gas had arrested 150 rioters since Saturday during the confrontations outside the hostel situated on a housing estate.

The Interior Minister, Rudolf Seiters, condemned the attacks. However, Lothar Kupfer, Interior Minister of the state of Mecklenburg, in which Rostock lies, declared a 'certain understanding' of the rioters. Rostock, heavily dependent on shipbuilding, has been severely hit by the economic collapse in eastern Germany, with massive unemployment and few bright prospects.

The number of asylum-seekers flooding into Germany has already passed last year's record of 256,000 - the influx in July alone was 46,000 - placing massive strain on housing, government resources and the goodwill of local communities. After months of blocking the centre-right government's intention to change the generous constitutional clause on asylum - it requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority - the SPD leadership bowed to pressure from its own local councillors, mayors and state politicians.

It is prepared to concede the government's main demand, the introduction of a list of countries where there is no longer judged to be political persecution. Expected to cover all central and east European countries, whence most refugees come, it would cut the asylum influx at a stroke.

Given strong grass-roots support in the SPD for urgent action to relieve the refugee pressure, the leadership could find it comparatively easy to get the necessary party congress blessing for its U-turn. The leader, Bjorn Engholm, raised yesterday the option of an extraordinary congress before the end of the year.

The leadership will have a much harder battle, however, to persuade the rank and file to back the other dramatic shift announced over the weekend. For the first time, the SPD leaders announced they could support a constitutional change allowing German troops to take part in multinational military operations abroad.

Not yet amounting to a clear break with 40 years of SPD pacifism, the decision, hedged with conditions unlikely to be fulfilled, marked the leadership's boldest step to date in its psychological campaign to nudge a reluctant party towards accepting an international security role for Germany which goes beyond just UN peace-keeping missions.

But any notion on the government side that the way is now clear for a constitutional change allowing Bundeswehr peace-making operations was quashed by Mr Engholm who, aware that such a manoeuvre cannot be rushed, said: 'The deployment of German troops out of the Nato area is not standing on the doorstep.'

The Christian Democrats said the 'lack of clarity' in the SPD's proposals made it 'very doubtful whether there is any basis for a reform of the constitution on German troop deployments abroad'.

(Photograph omitted)