German city braces for fresh demo after bloody clashes

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German authorities braced for a fresh protest against a contentious rail project Friday that organisers hoped would draw 100,000 people, a day after demonstrators clashed with riot police.

Chancellor Angela Merkel called for calm after police using water cannons, tear gas and batons in the southwestern city of Stuttgart left hundreds of people needing medical treatment, according to demonstrators.

Authorities said initially that demonstrators had hurled bottles at officers, but a police spokeswoman told AFP Friday that they had thrown "only chestnuts" from trees where the clashes took place.

Some however had used pepper spray, she said.

"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."

On Thursday more than 20,000 protestors were dispersed by close to 1,000 police drafted in from all over the country, according to demonstrators.

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.

"One man's eye was shot out after he was hit full in the face by water cannon," Axel Wieland, a spokesman for the demonstrators from the BUND green pressure group, told AFP. The police spokeswoman confirmed this.

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.

Organisers hoped that up to 100,000 people would take part in another demonstration and march through the city planned for 7 pm (1700 GMT). The Green party called for protests at train stations around the country.

"This was a peaceful protest action free of violence. The only violence was that committed by the police," said Matthias von Herrmann, another spokesman for the demonstrators.

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

Opponents say most people are against the project, that it will go massively over budget and will ultimately fail to speed up rail traffic. They say that the money would be better spent on other parts of Germany's rail network.

Locals in 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.

"This was a brutal day that showed the face of state premier (Stefan) Mappus, his 'Rambo' face," von Herrmann told rolling news channel N24.

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.

Merkel, a year into a rocky second term, has thrown her weight behind "Stuttgart 21," 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.

© 2010 AFP

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