Merkel vows to fight hate after attempted 'massacre' at synagogue

by Marion PAYET with Deborah COLE in Berlin
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The victims were apparently chosen at random when the assailant failed to gain access to the temple he had besieged with gunfire and homemade explosives

Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed Thursday there would be "zero tolerance" for hate in Germany after an attempted massacre at a synagogue, as Jews demanded action to protect the community from the rising threat of neo-Nazi violence.

Two people were shot dead in the eastern German city of Halle on Wednesday, with a synagogue the prime target on Yom Kippur. The suspect, 27-year-old German Stephan Balliet, filmed the assault and live-streamed it.

The victims, reportedly a German man and woman, appeared to be chosen at random when the assailant failed to gain access to the temple he had besieged with gunfire and homemade explosives, as the frightened congregation barricaded itself inside.

The rampage was streamed live for 35 minutes on Twitch, and eventually seen by some 2,200 people, the online platform said, in a chilling reminder of the mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March which was also played out online in real time.

Police subsequently captured the Halle suspect after a gun battle that left him wounded.

Merkel told a trade union convention that the German state and civil society must do everything in their power to stand up to "hate, violence and contempt for human life".

"There must be zero tolerance," she said.

- Historical guilt for Holocaust -

Late Wednesday, Merkel joined a solidarity vigil at a historic Berlin synagogue, and firmly condemned the anti-Semitic rampage.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, joined by Israeli ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff and local officials, laid flowers Thursday at the Halle temple before meeting Jewish community representatives inside.

He later told reporters that the country had a duty to protect Jews on its soil, also in light of its historical guilt for the Holocaust.

"It must be clear that the state takes responsibility for Jewish life, for the security of Jewish life in Germany," he said.

Federal prosecutor Peter Frank said Balliet would be charged with two counts of murder and nine counts of attempted murder in what he called a "terror" act that had been planned to be a "massacre".

Balliet had packed four kilogrammes (nine pounds) of explosives in his car, and "wanted to enter the synagogue to kill many people," Frank added.

- 'Disgrace for our country' -

But Jewish leaders said that pledges were not enough, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joining calls for Germany to "act resolutely" against anti-Semitism.

The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, called it "scandalous" the authorities had failed to provide adequate security on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

"This negligence has now been bitterly repaid."

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer later joined Schuster at the Halle synagogue and told him Germany would dramatically bolster the manpower for fighting "right-wing terror".

"This brutal crime yesterday was a disgrace for our entire country," he told reporters.

"We will on the federal level... massively augment the security authorities."

Germany has taken pride in the rebirth of Jewish life since the Nazis' World War II slaughter of six million Jews across Europe.

The community has grown to about 225,000 thanks in large part to an influx from the ex-Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Without mentioning the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) by name, Merkel and Steinmeier condemned xenophobic rhetoric they said had grown increasingly mainstream and dangerous.

AfD parliamentary group leader Alice Weidel pushed back, saying critics were "exploiting this horrible crime to defame their political rivals with baseless defamation".

In a copy of a 35-minute video obtained by AFP the gunman filmed himself launching into a diatribe against women and Jews and denying the Holocaust, before carrying out the attack.

The gunman also published an anti-Semitic "manifesto" online more than a week ago, which the SITE monitoring group said appeared to have been written by Balliet. The document obtained by AFP but unauthenticated by police showed pictures of the weapons and ammunition he apparently used.

- 'Failure', 'loser' -

The daily Bild spoke to relatives and neighbours who described Balliet, a former soldier, as a loner and computer junkie who lived with his mother. In the streamed video he repeatedly calls himself a "failure" and a "loser".

Among those in the synagogue were 10 Americans, as well as several Israelis, who had turned up in Halle especially to join the small local population in celebrating Yom Kippur.

"We've made it out with our lives, in health and amazing spirits," wrote Rebecca Blady, a Jewish American community leader, who was in the synagogue.

Hundreds took part a vigil in Halle on Thursday evening and were to join a silent march to the temple, where locals have left dozens of bouquets of flowers.

The victims were apparently chosen at random when the assailant failed to gain access to the temple he had besieged with gunfire and homemade explosives

Police captured the suspect after a gun battle that left him injured