By Riham Alkousaa
BERLIN (Reuters) -German police have foiled a plot by anti-vaccination activists to murder the state premier of Saxony in eastern Germany, they said on Wednesday, as concerns grow over an increasingly violent pushback against COVID-19 vaccination plans.
The plot to kill Michael Kretschmer is the latest in a series of incidents that underscore the anger of some Germans over restrictions on the unvaccinated and plans to make vaccinations compulsory for the general population.
Saxony has one of Germany's highest levels of COVID-19 infection but also its lowest vaccination rate. It is a stronghold of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which harbours many vaccine sceptics and anti-lockdown protesters.
Members of a group called "Dresden Offlinevernetzung", or 'Dresden offline network', had suggested in a chat on messaging platform Telegram that they might be in possession of firearms and crossbows, Saxony police said on Twitter.
The investigation targeted six suspects - five men and a woman - aged between 32 and 64, Dresden Public Prosecutor's Office said, adding that several pieces of evidence had been found, including crossbows.
'A LINE HAS BEEN CROSSED'
Kretschmer, 46, a member of Germany's opposition conservatives, has been calling for a hard lockdown to break a fourth wave of infections in his state.
He said the right to free speech should be respected but not used as a cover for violence, adding that the Saxony state government would mobilise additional staff to combat radicalism.
"Of course you can say what you don't like. But when violence comes into play, it's over. A line has been crossed which we will not tolerate," Kretschmer told reporters.
Saxony has the second highest seven-day incidence of COVID-19 among Germany's 16 federal states, at 824 per 100,000 people compared with a national incidence of 353.
In Saxony, in the former Communist East Germany, some 62% of the population has had two vaccinations, compared with around 70% nationwide.
Protests against COVID-19 restrictions in Germany have become more violent, with increased attacks on doctors, politicians and journalists.
"Such attacks were unthinkable just a few years ago," said Klaus Reinhardt, head of the German Medical Association.
In September, a vaccination centre in Saxony was the target of an arson attack. Earlier this month, a group of protesters gathered outside the home of Saxony's health minister holding lit torches, in what was seen as an implicit threat of violence.
German broadcaster ARD reported on Tuesday that more than a dozen politicians, media outlets and public institutions had received letters that threatened "bloody resistance" against the measures and included a wrapped chunk of meat.
Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office has classified vaccination opponents and coronavirus deniers as a "relevant risk".
In his first major address to parliament since taking office last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Wednesday his government would not tolerate violent protests against the coronavirus restrictions.
"We will not put up with a tiny minority of uninhibited extremists trying to force their will on our entire society," Scholz said.
(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa, Madeline Chambers and Hans Seidenstuecker, Tanya WoodEditing by Gareth Jones)