BERLIN (Reuters) - German police, facing accusations they bungled inquiries into a string of murders of immigrants, have this year arrested 46 people suspected of crimes linked to neo-Nazi groups and are hunting over 100 more.
An Interior Ministry document, released on Thursday by a left-wing parliamentary critic of Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right government, described the arrests as a "success" in combating far-right crimes, which can range from displaying swastika tattoos and praising Hitler to inciting racial hatred, violence or theft and dealing drugs to finance militant groups.
Merkel is also under pressure to ban the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), which has seats in some regional assemblies and, as a result, has access to state funding.
Last month, in response to what became known as the "kebab murders" scandal, she issued a public apology to families of 10 people, most of them Turkish immigrants, whose killers police failed to trace for years until two neo-Nazis, now the presumed culprits, died in an apparent murder-suicide in November.
Of 160 people who were on the newly drawn up police wanted list of far-right suspects in January, 46 have since been arrested, the Interior Ministry document showed.
No comparison was available for then number of radicals being pursued in previous years. Data shows the crime associated with far-right groups has been fairly stable in recent years.
Member of parliament Ulla Jelpke from the Left party, who requested the data from the Interior Ministry and then released it, was unconvinced by police assurances, however. She said incidents that should be classified as hate crimes were often treated as simple misdemeanours: "The security authorities in Germany are more blinkered than we feared," she said.
Since the reunification of Germany in 1990, neo-Nazis have been seen as particularly strong in the formerly communist east, where economic problems are harshest. But the document indicated that most of the fugitives were believed to be in the more populous western states. Seven suspects are being sought abroad.
This week, conservative regional leaders took a step that may pave the way for further efforts to ban the NPD, which condemned the murders of the immigrants but which officials say is nonetheless racist and anti-Semitic and defies a ban on denying elements of German history, notably the Holocaust.
A previous government attempt to ban the NPD through the courts a decade ago fell apart when prosecution witnesses were exposed as undercover security agents whom defendants said had entrapped them. On Wednesday, conservative regional ministers agreed to pull informants from the top ranks of the NPD. It was unclear how ma many such agents have been in place.
One official said the government could review in about six months whether to bring a new case against the party.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald