German anti-migrant rally highlights European backlash

Istanbul (AFP) - Germany's PEGIDA movement holds an anti-migrant rally Monday a year on from its formation, highlighting a European backlash towards a massive influx that has heaped pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The demonstration comes a day after Swiss voters returned a historically strong result for a populist party known for its virulent campaigns against immigrants and Islam, and following a knife attack on a German mayoral candidate who championed refugee issues.

Monday's rally, due to start at 1600 GMT in PEGIDA's stronghold of Dresden, marks a contrast to efforts by Merkel who over the weekend made a crucial one-day trip to Turkey, where she hailed progress in helping Ankara deal with the migrant crisis and vowed to push forward its long-stalled EU membership bid.

The European Union wants Turkey to do more to tighten its border security and help contain the historic influx of Syrians and others escaping conflict, persecution and poverty.

In return, Ankara wants greater recognition for its role in hosting more than two million Syrian refugees, an increase in financial help and an acceleration of its stuttering drive for EU membership.

Merkel and the Turkish leadership indicated officials were making progress towards a deal on cooperation, although neither suggested a final agreement had been reached.

She said Berlin was prepared to support opening EU accession talks on economic and monetary affairs, and would also consider opening more of the 35 total so-called "policy chapters".

- 'Dynamising accession' -

Speaking after her talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Merkel said the EU and Turkey were in agreement to work closer "on dynamising the accession process" towards Turkey's EU membership and also visa liberalisation for Turks wanting to travel to the EU's Schengen zone.

"The talks in that direction are very promising and will be continued," said Merkel.

Erdogan, who for months has bitterly criticised the EU's attitude towards Turkey, also called for more accession chapters to be opened, while Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu praised a "better approach" from the 28-nation bloc.

Germany has been Europe's top destination for refugees, most of whom travel through Turkey and the Balkans, and is expecting to register up to a million asylum requests this year.

While many Germans have welcomed the refugees, there has also been a backlash with Merkel's party losing support while the long-dormant anti-Islamic PEGIDA protest movement has again drawn thousands of followers.

Simmering tensions ended in violence in the western city of Cologne on Saturday when a man with a knife attacked independent mayoral candidate Henriette Reker, who is active in helping refugees, leaving her with serious neck wounds and injuring four others.

Reker won Sunday's election with an absolute majority.

The attacker, a 44-year-old unemployed man arrested at the scene, had "a racist motivation" according to police, and was said to have been close to the extreme right in the 1990s.

- 'Migration pressure' -

In another sign of increasing anti-migrant sentiment in Europe, a Swiss populist party known for its virulent campaigns against immigration, the European Union and Islam won a record number of seats in the Alpine nation's parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Merkel said that the fact Turkey had accomplished the immense task of looking after more than two million Syrian refugees on relatively little funding had led to "migration pressure" which resulted in the current unprecedented influx of migrants into Europe.

"We will engage ourselves more strongly financially as the European Union. Germany will play its part," she promised.

More than 630,000 people fleeing war and misery have landed on Europe's shores so far this year, many making risky sea crossings from Turkey to Greece.

Another 12 people drowned off the Turkish coast on Saturday, and on Sunday the Greek coastguard said five migrants including a baby and two boys had died trying to cross the Aegean Sea.

Separately, 20 Afghan would-be migrants bound for Europe were killed in Iran on Sunday when the mini-bus they were travelling in collided with a truck.

As the influx continued, Hungary closed its border with Croatia, forcing thousands of migrants to find a new route to northern Europe through Slovenia and into Austria.

But with numbers growing, Slovenia on Sunday said it would handle no more than 2,500 arrivals a day to ease pressure on both its own and Austria's borders.