Swedish anti-racists swamp first PEGIDA anti-Islam rally

STOCKHOLM (AFP) - Sweden's first rally by the German-inspired "anti-Islamisation" movement PEGIDA in the city of Malmoe was dwarfed Monday by a counter-demonstration about a hundred times larger, according to police estimates.

Television images showed a small group of PEGIDA demonstrators hemmed into a cordoned-off area of the southern city's central square, surrounded by anti-racism protesters.

"There are at least 3,000 thousand, most of them counter-demonstrators" Malmoe police spokesman Lars Foerstell said, adding that there were about 30 PEGIDA protesters.

"The support is much greater than that," PEGIDA's Swedish leader Henrik Roennquist told public broadcaster SVT putting the number at 150.

Malmoe is Sweden's third city and home to a growing population of Muslims as the country receives the highest proportion of refugees in Europe per head of population.

Counter-demonstrators drowned out attempts by the group to deliver speeches with chants of "no racists on our streets" and police were forced to intervene to extinguish smoke bombs and firecrackers hurled at the PEGIDA side of the square.

"There is an unmet need for this in Sweden. It's not about racism, it's not about shutting out immigrants. It's about our values and traditions," said Roennquist.

Police refused to grant PEGIDA a permit to march and only allowed the group to hold a "stationary demonstration" in the city.

"A march would have had too much impact on the neighbourhood," Lars Foerstell said.

PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) rallies began in the German city of Dresden last year with several hundred supporters and snowballed to reach 25,000 people on January 12.

But numbers have fallen since the movement's founder stepped down on Jan 21 after a picture surfaced of him posing as Adolf Hitler. Other senior figures have also since resigned.

Small offshoots of PEGIDA have sprung up in other German cities and marches have taken place in the Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark and Norway, involving however only a few hundred people and generally dwarfed by far larger anti-racism rallies.