German police slam misleading reports of New Year’s violence

A police officer with a submachine gun stands guard after a truck ran into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. Several people have been killed in the incident. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

BERLIN (AP) – Reports that migrants had carried out arson and large-scale violence during New Year’s Eve celebrations in the German city of Dortmund prompted a strong denial Wednesday from city police, who called the claims misleading.

Several websites outside Germany carried articles in recent days claiming that a thousand-strong “mob” of migrants had attacked police and set fire to a church in the city. The reports, some of which were trending on social media, cited tweets from a local German news website, Ruhr Nachrichten, even though they contained no such claims.

A spokeswoman for Dortmund police said that about 1,000 people had gathered in a square to celebrate New Year with fireworks – as is customary in Germany. A handful of officers were injured by flying fireworks but none were attacked, she said.

The spokeswoman, Nina Vogt, said a firework also struck some netting on scaffolding close to the Reinoldi Church, but the small fire was quickly extinguished.

“There’s no indication it was directed there on purpose,” she said. Contrary to various reports on English-language websites, the church is not Germany’s oldest.

While there were several arrests and violent incidents in Dortmund, that wasn’t unusual for a city of almost 600,000, she said.

“New Year’s Eve night really was pretty quiet,” Vogt told The Associated Press. Reports to the contrary “absolutely don’t correspond to reality,” she said.

The reports appear to have been partly inspired by a far-right website from Dortmund, which is known for its active neo-Nazi scene.

The issue of fake news, particularly in relation to migrants, has become a hot topic in Germany in the run-up to the country’s general election in the fall, and the government has called on social media websites to do more to prevent the spread of fake news.

In a separate incident, police in Upper Bavaria took the unusual step Tuesday of denying reports that had been circulating on Facebook about an asylum-seeker committing a rape.

Police said they were investigating if such posts constituted a criminal offense and whether people who spread them could be held liable for wasting police time.

In Dortmund, police spokeswoman Vogt said authorities are facing a growing number of misleading reports.

“I fear this phenomenon of fake news won’t go away,” she said.

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