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Thousands march in eastern Germany after fatal stabbing

Nationalist groups held rallies after two asylum seekers were arrested over the death of Daniel Hillig.

An anti-migrant march in eastern Germany which far-right activists hoped would launch a nationwide movement to challenge the political establishment has been brought to a close by police.

A trio of nationalist groups held separate rallies in the city of Chemnitz following the fatal stabbing of a 35-year-old on August 26.

The two largest groups also organised their first joint march, a display of unity meant to build on other protests since the killing of German man Daniel Hillig.

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A police water cannon stands between far right demonstrators in Chemnitz (dpa/AP)

Saxony state police cited security concerns for halting the march after more than an hour, producing screams and whistles from demonstrators as officers moved in to clear the streets but no violence or vandalism as the crowd dispersed.

The progress of the far-right march had already been interrupted several times as counter-protesters blocked the route and the sizeable police contingent on hand rushed to keep them and the marchers apart.

Saxony police estimated the event had 4,500 participants and 4,000 counter-protesters.

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Bjoern Hoecker, leader of the Alternative for Germany participates in a commemoration march (dpa/AP)

The mood at the event bringing together previously isolated clusters of nationalists — from lawmakers to Hitler-saluting skinheads — darkened as the sun set.

People from both ends of the political spectrum could be seen drinking beer and shouting slurs at police.

The tension in the air reflected the polarisation over Germany’s ongoing effort to come to terms with an influx of more than a million refugees and migrants seeking jobs since 2015.

We do not tolerate that right-wing extremists infiltrate our society

The right blames chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow in hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan for multiple problems.

Some far-right supporters argued before the killing in Chemnitz that migrants are responsible for an increase in serious crimes, especially attacks on women.

The anti-migrant sentiment has been particularly strong in Saxony state, traditional strongholds of groups that sought to inspire a nationwide movement on Saturday night: the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, or PEGIDA, and the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has won seats in federal and state parliaments with an anti-Muslim platform.

There's no excuse for violence

German Justice Minister Katarina Barley said Saturday that authorities should investigate the role of networks from the radical far right in spearheading the week’s protests.

“We do not tolerate that right-wing extremists infiltrate our society,” she told weekly newspaper Bild am Sonntag. “It’s about finding out who’s behind the mobilisation of far-right criminals.”

Local police appeared to have been caught unprepared when the slaying triggered the protests, which attracted crowds openly engaging in Nazi veneration and devolved into violence.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, known for his anti-migrant stance, said Saturday that he understood why “the people in Chemnitz and elsewhere are upset about the brutal killing” but added “there’s no excuse for violence,” Funke Media Group reported.

“We need a strong state and we have to do everything politically to overcome the polarisation and division of our society,” Seehofer said.

Chemnitz, a city known for its hardened neo-Nazi scene, at first attracted a comparatively weak response to the recent anti-migrant activity.

Some 70 left-leaning and pro-migrant groups organised the “Heart not Hatred” rally that got in the way of Saturday’s far-right march.

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