Merkel calls for calm as rail protest turns ugly

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Chancellor Angela Merkel called for calm Friday after more than 100 people were injured in a night of running battles between police and opponents of a hotly contested rail project.

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

According to the police, officers used pepper spray and water cannon after demonstrators attempted to stop workers cutting down trees in Stuttgart in southwest Germany to make way for the rail project.

Some of the protestors, who numbered around 2,000, launched fireworks, threw bottles and set rubbish containers on fire, police said. There were several hundred police officers at the scene in riot gear.

A total of 114 people were treated at the scene for injuries, while 16 others were taken to hospital, police said. Twenty-six people were arrested, the youngest 15 and the oldest 68, they added.

Demonstrators said that almost 300 people were injured. Television pictures showed water cannon being used against people holding a sit-in, and protestors with their eyes streaming with tears from the pepper spray.

The building work is part of a seven-billion-euro (9.5-billion-dollar) plan that aims to make Stuttgart and the surrounding region part of the 1,500-kilometre (930-mile), high-speed "Magistrale for Europe" across the continent.

Opponents say a majority of people are against the project, that it will go massively over budget and will ultimately fail 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 of Stuttgart object most of all to parts of their beloved train station, built between the wars by architect Paul Bonatz, being demolished, and to trees, many of which are very old, being cut down.

It looks set to become a major issue in a March election in Baden-Wuerttemberg state, where the chancellor's conservatives could lose control after half a century in power. Merkel supports the project.

© 2010 AFP

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