Thousands rally for and against Pegida as migrants polarize Europe

Thousands of anti-asylum protesters marched through the German city of Dresden on Saturday, the day that the Islamophobic Pegida called on supporters to rally at locations across Europe.

In Dresden, where Pegida protests frequently attract thousands of supporters, there was a high police presence, as officers sought to keep the peace between the group's supporters and thousands of counter-demonstrators.

Up to 8,000 people took to the streets in support of Pegida's anti-foreigner cause, according to Durchgezaehlt, an online group that researches the size of public gatherings.

Pegida staged the Dresden march and events in other cities under the title "Fortress Europe" in protest against the recent influx of migrants to the continent.

"Independent of the EU and the usual elitist circles, we will develop the network of patriots in Europe - to Fortress Europe," Pegida frontwoman Tatjana Festerlin told the crowds in Dresden, a city which she described as the "capital of German resistance."

No scuffles were reported between Pegida supporters and the 2,500-strong pro-diversity camp.

The numbers painted a more modest picture of the gatherings compared to earlier police estimates, which said that around 25,000 people were expected to take to the streets in total.

The Pegida rally in the eastern German city was punctuated by chants of "Merkel must go," as protesters lashed out at Chancellor Angela Merkel's role in allowing over 1 million asylum seekers to enter Europe last year.

Pegida, a German acronym for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, has announced a day of international rallies against Muslims and migrants on Saturday.

In Prague, the Pegida offshoot event turned violent as right-wingers clashed with left-wing opponents. Several hundred police officers were deployed to separate the two sides, who threw bottles and fireworks at one another.

Around 1,500 anti-Islam protesters turned out to support Pegida there, carrying barriers reading "No to immigration - stop Merkelization."

"Islam is not a religion, it is a fascist ideology," one demonstrator told dpa.

In a "Prague declaration" of support to the so-called Fortress Europe movement, members warned that 1,000 years of Western culture could soon be lost to the "Islamic conquest of Europe."

"We will not hand Europe over to our enemies," the signed document said.

Numbers in Prague did not meet organizers' expectations. They had previously said that several thousands would join their cause.

Around 400 people protested against Pegida in the Czech capital and campaigned for solidarity with refugees seeking protection and a better life in Europe.

"We want to fight against the growing xenophobia in Czech society," a counter-demonstrator said.

Others carried signs reading "Hate solves no problems" and "Refugees welcome."

Police said five people were arrested on Saturday while protesting against a rally in Copenhagen organized by the group For Frihed (For Freedom), formerly known as Pegida in Denmark.

One of the five was arrested for assaulting a police officer, Copenhagen police spokesman Henrik Blandebjerg told dpa. The other four were suspected of minor offences.

The anti-Islam rally in the Danish capital assembled about 100 people, who listened to speeches before marching a few kilometres. Some carried Danish flags.

Police officers escorted the marchers while counter-demonstrators walked alongside shouting slogans like "No racists on our streets," according to video footage on the online edition of newspaper Ekstra Bladet.

One of the speakers at the For Freedom rally was Lars Hedegaard, former president of the Danish Free Speech Society, which has organized public meetings and lectures by critics of Islam, and says it opposes censorship.

Hedegaard in 2013 survived a shooting attempt at his home.

Police estimated that about 100 people took part in the counter-demonstration.

In Dublin, Pegida announced the establishment of an Irish branch on Saturday, national broadcaster RTE reported. Meanwhile, five of the group's opponents scuffled with police officers as they tried to pursue people protesting for Pegida, the report said.

Last update: Sun, 21/08/2016 - 12:59

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