Fresh demos in German city after bloody clashes

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Tens of thousands of people rallied in the southwestern city of Stuttgart Friday to protest against a contentious rail project, a day after riot police clashed with demonstrators.

Chants of "Shame on You!" and a cacophony of vuvuzelas rang out from the crowd which organisers put at more than 100,000 people, hours after Chancellor Angela Merkel had appealed for calm.

The night before police used water cannons, tear gas and batons to disperse 20,000 protestors, leaving hundreds of people needing medical treatment.

"Many people are traumatised, because yesterday ... was a catastrophe, we weren't expecting such violence from the police," said Stuttgart native Werner Braetschkus.

Local police spokesman Stefan Keilbach said Friday's demonstration had so far passed of without injuries. Police had yet to release a crowd estimate for the protest.

"I would hope that demonstrations like these would pass off peacefully," Merkel told public broadcaster SWR. "This must always be tried, and anything that leads to violence must be avoided."

Following the clashes with police on Thursday more than 400 people including minors needed medical treatment, mostly because of the tear gas and pepper spray but also for broken noses and wrists as well as cuts, organisers said.

A blast from a water canon knock an eye out of one protestor, both organisers and police said.

A total of 130 people were injured and 16 taken to hospital, police said. Twenty-six were arrested, the youngest 15 and the oldest 68, they added. Three police officers received cuts and bruises.

Police originally said protestors had thrown rocks and bottles at them, but on Friday a spokeswoman told AFP that only chestnuts had been lobbed at officers.

The demonstrators have been protesting a seven-billion-euro (9.5-billion-dollar) project that aims to make Stuttgart and the surrounding region part of a 1,500-kilometre (930-mile), high-speed rail route across Europe.

Residents of the wealthy city object most of all to parts of their train station, built between the wars by architect Paul Bonatz, being demolished, and to hundreds of trees, many of them old, being cut down.

Hearts cut out of fabric and plastic sunflowers have been tied to the trees in the city-centre park that are threatened by the railway project.

"We are sleeping here every night. We stay here in shifts to protect the trees," said 32-year-old protestor Tobias Heyer.

Protestors were also calling for Stefan Mappus, premier of Baden-Wuerttemberg state, who Friday told reporters: "I have full confidence in the police."

Merkel, a year into a rocky second term, has thrown her weight behind "Stuttgart 21" rail project and her spokesman Steffen Seibert called on opponents and supporters on Friday to return to the negotiating table.

Demonstrators "have the right to protest, but not the right to prevent a democratic decision being implemented," he told reporters.

Merkel has said that an election in Baden-Wuerttemberg in March, where her conservatives could lose control after half a century in power, is set to be a referendum on the project.

© 2010 AFP

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