German nationalists draw fire over Syria trip, face scrutiny

BERLIN (AP) — The nationalist Alternative for Germany party came under fire from the government Wednesday, after some of its lawmakers traveled to Syria and met with officials close to President Bashar Assad.

Several members of the party, known as AfD, posted pictures of their trip on social media this week, including from a meeting with Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, an Assad loyalist who threatened in 2011 to unleash suicide attacks in the West.

AfD wants Syrian refugees in Germany to return home, claiming the conflict there is over. On Tuesday, a regional AfD lawmaker from western Germany, Christian Blex, wrote on Twitter: “Met open and friendly people everywhere who were very happy about our visit. Everything is totally relaxed here.”

Asked about the lawmakers’ trip, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said “the Syrian regime demonstrates every day how inhumanely it treats its own population.”

“Idlib, Aleppo, East Ghouta — those are all names known around the world for the suffering of innocent civilians, a suffering that President Assad orders or accepts,” he told reporters in Berlin.

“(Assad’s) war against his own population triggered a refugee movement of historic proportions,” Seibert added. “That’s why anyone who courts this regime disqualifies themselves.”

Scrutiny of AfD has been growing as the party, which came third in last year’s elections, has been moving further to the right.

Several of its members have expressed anti-Semitic views or called for an end to Germany’s decades-long tradition of acknowledging and atoning for its Nazi past. Some have been found to have ties to far-right groups and foreign governments considered hostile to Germany, such as Russia and Syria.

Public broadcaster ARD reported this week that Andreas Kalbitz, the party’s leader in the eastern state of Brandenburg, attended a camp in 2007 organized by the far-right group “Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend.”

The group, whose name roughly translates as German Youth Loyal to the Homeland, has since been banned. Authorities said its aim was to indoctrinate children with neo-Nazi ideology and subject them to paramilitary training.

A spokeswoman for Germany’s interior ministry said the country’s domestic intelligence agencies are discussing what steps might be required to put the party under surveillance.

“Such a decision needs to be well-prepared” to ensure all legal requirements for surveillance are met, said the spokeswoman, Annegret Korff. She added that based on current information, authorities don’t consider AfD to have extremist positions as a whole.

Germany’s domestic intelligence agencies, whose role includes monitoring political extremists, have in the past kept members of the opposition Left party and the far-right NPD under surveillance.

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