Critics of Merkel’s stance towards refugees seize on speculation about nationalities of perpetrators in Cologne attacks.
Competing protests have been held in Cologne, Germany in response to the series of violent assaults against women on New Year’s Eve.
About 450 supporters of the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement were facing off with 1,300 counter-demonstrators behind the city’s main train station on Saturday, police said.
After bottles and firecrackers were hurled at officials, police cancelled the march by the far-right groups, a spokeswoman said. Police used water canon to disperse protesters.
The attacks on New Year’s Eve caused tensions in Germany because the victims described the offenders as “foreigners” and “migrants”, of which the country has accepted about 1.1 million this year – more than any other European nation.
Cologne’s federal police have said they received 170 criminal complaints connected to the New Year’s festivities, including 120 cases of sexual assaults.
The German government said 31 suspects were briefly detained for questioning. Eighteen of them were asylum seekers.
The detained included nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, two Germans and one person each from Iraq, Serbia and the US.
Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from the protests, said the left-wing demonstrators, who protested against PEGIDA, clearly outnumbered the right-wing protesters.
Police sources estimated that the left-wing demonstration was about four to five times as big as the right-wing march.
“This shows the difference of opinion in the refugee debate that has been going on in Germany,” our correspondent said.
German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has proposed tougher laws which include expelling asylum seekers convicted of committing crimes in Germany, in response to the assaults.
Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), discussed on Saturday deportation for asylum seekers who commit crimes as an important facet of their new 10-point plan for the nation’s future.
At the two-day summit in Mainz the CDU discussed if asylum seekers should be expelled sooner. On Saturday, the party confirmed their plans.
“What happened on New Year’s Eve are despicable criminal acts that demand decisive answers,” Merkel said after a meeting among the top ranks of her CDU in Mainz.
“The right to asylum can be lost if someone is convicted on probation or jailed,” Merkel added.
The police chief of of Cologne was dismissed on Friday amid mounting criticism of his force’s handling of New Year’s Eve sexual assaults and robberies.