German party receives far-right threats after refugee visit

By Noah Barkin BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) were forced to evacuate their headquarters on Tuesday after receiving a bomb threat and flood of racist emails and phone calls the party said were linked to leader Sigmar Gabriel's visit to the eastern town of Heidenau. The town near Dresden was the scene of violent clashes over the weekend as far-right militants, protesting against the arrival of around 250 refugees at a local shelter, pelted police with bottles and rocks, some shouting "Heil Hitler". Gabriel, who is also vice chancellor and economy minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, traveled to the town on Monday and denounced the "mob" behind the violence. "They think of themselves as defenders of the real Germany. In truth they are the most un-German people I can think of," he told reporters in Heidenau. The center-left SPD, which shares power with Merkel's conservatives, said that in the 24 hours after Gabriel's visit it had received 300 emails with "misanthropic" content and about 150 calls in which its employees were insulted and threatened. In the afternoon, the party was forced to evacuate its headquarters in central Berlin after a bomb threat was called in. No bomb was found and party members were able to return to the building after roughly an hour. The SPD said it was considering legal action in response to some of the emails. "We've got to assume that this is a political act," said SPD general secretary Yasmin Fahimi. The threats underscored how tense the situation in Germany has become as asylum seekers pour in from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Balkan nations in southeast Europe. This year alone, Germany expects some 800,000 refugees, equivalent to almost 1 percent of the population and four times as many as last year. MERKEL TO VISIT TOWN Surveys show a majority of Germans welcome the refugees. But arson attacks on asylum shelters are occurring on an almost daily basis, tarnishing an image for openness and tolerance that the country has worked hard to build since the racist mass murder of the Nazi era. Hajo Funke, an expert on the far-right at Berlin's Free University, said the situation was not as bad as it was in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when xenophobic riots broke out and German politicians failed to respond forcefully. "The situation is becoming tense because of a small group of a few thousand neo-Nazis with violent tendencies," Funke said. "But you can't compare it to the 1990s when politicians and a large portion of the population simply accepted it." He blamed authorities in the state of Saxony, where Heidenau is located, for allowing the situation to get out of control over the weekend by deploying far too few police. Heidenau is located in an area near the Czech border where the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), a fringe group in most parts of the country, is at its strongest. Merkel, who was criticized by the SPD and opposition parties for waiting nearly three days to condemn the violence in Heidenau, where 31 police were injured, is due to travel to the town on Wednesday. She will meet asylum seekers, volunteers and security forces, accompanied by the state premier of Saxony. In the latest in a string of arson attacks, police were investigating the burning down of a sports hall in the town of Nauen, in the eastern state of Brandenburg near Berlin, where some 130 asylum seekers were due to be housed. No one was hurt. On Monday evening, Merkel described the climate of racism as unacceptable. It was, she said, "repulsive" to see right wing militants and neo-Nazis express their hatred and "disgraceful" that other Germans supported it by marching alongside them. (Reporting by Thorsten Severin, Erik Kirschbaum and Madeline Chambers; Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by Gareth Jones)