Germany arrests anti-vaxxer neo-Nazis for plot to kidnap health minister

Suspects from ‘Vereinte Patrioten’ group accused of ‘preparing explosive attacks and other acts of violence,’ as well as planning ‘kidnapping of well-known public figures’

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach addresses the media during a press conference in Berlin, Germany, on February 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File)
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach addresses the media during a press conference in Berlin, Germany, on February 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File)

BERLIN, Germany (AFP) — German investigators on Thursday said they had arrested four members of a far-right anti-lockdown group with pro-Russian leanings for planning violent attacks, including a plot to kidnap the country’s health minister.

The suspects from the “Vereinte Patrioten” (United Patriots) group are accused of “preparing explosive attacks and other acts of violence,” as well as the “kidnapping of well-known public figures,” prosecutors in Koblenz said in a joint statement with the Rhineland-Palatinate police.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach confirmed he was among their targets and had received police protection.

A central goal of the group was to “destroy power supply facilities in order to cause a prolonged nationwide blackout,” the investigators said.

“This was intended to cause civil war-like conditions and ultimately overthrow the democratic system in Germany,” they said.

Investigators had identified five German suspects aged 41-55, and on Wednesday carried out searches leading to four arrests and the seizure of around two dozen guns, including a Kalashnikov.

Police also found ammunition, around 8,900 euros ($9,600) in cash, gold bars and silver coins, and foreign currency worth more than 10,000 euros ($10,800).

They also seized forged COVID-19 vaccination certificates, as well as several written documents about the group’s plans to overthrow the state.

‘Highly dangerous’

The Vereinte Patrioten group includes members of the far-right Reichsbuerger (Citizens of the Reich), who reject Germany’s democratic institutions, as well as opponents of the government’s anti-virus measures, the prosecutors said.

Responding to the news, Lauterbach said some protesters against COVID-19 measures had become “highly dangerous.”

A small minority have “not only become radicalized but are now about more than Covid and… are intent on destabilizing the state and democracy,” he said in a statement.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed his “solidarity” with Lauterbach on Twitter.

“Everyone in Germany is allowed to speak their mind,” he said. “But our civil liberties have limits, and these are exceeded when violence is threatened.”

Roger Lewentz, the interior minister for Rhineland-Palatinate state, said the group’s 70 members had plotted their attacks using the Telegram encrypted messaging app.

They were supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said, expressing a wish “that Putin should also be successful here in Germany so that other systems of government could take hold here.”

Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said the group posed a “serious terrorist threat” that Germany would counter “with the full force of the law.”

Their kidnapping plans and “violent coup fantasies” represented a “new quality of threat,” she said in a statement.

Germany’s center-left-led government under Scholz took office in December pledging a decisive fight against far-right militants after criticism that the previous administration had been lax on neo-Nazi violence.

Death threats

Investigators last week swooped on alleged neo-Nazi militant cells across Germany and arrested four suspects in what Der Spiegel magazine called “the biggest blow against the militant neo-Nazi scene in the recent past.”

A suspected neo-Nazi was also charged this week with attempting to set off a “race war” in Germany with planned attacks using explosives and guns.

A demonstrator wrapped in a flag of the German empire stands opposite riot policemen standing guard in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the Bundestag lower house of parliament, after protesters tried to storm it at the end of a demonstration called by far-right and COVID-19 deniers to protest against restrictions, in Berlin, on August 29, 2020. (John Macdougall/AFP)

Germany’s protests against coronavirus measures have at times drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators, attracting a wide mix of people, including vaccine skeptics, neo-Nazis, and members of the far-right AfD party.

The country’s domestic intelligence agency last year said it would start monitoring the “Querdenker” (Lateral Thinkers) anti-lockdown movement over concerns it posed a threat to democracy and had ties to right-wing extremism.

The Telegram encrypted messaging app has played a key role in mobilizing turnout at some of the most violent protests, and has also been used to spread death threats against politicians.

Police announced in February that they were setting up a special force to investigate offending posts on the app, identifying and prosecuting authors.

However, anti-lockdown protests have died down in recent weeks in Germany since the easing of virus restrictions and after a proposal for compulsory vaccination was defeated in parliament.

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