Far-right crimes rise sharply in Austria amid migrant crisis

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria saw a sharp increase last year in the number of incidents involving xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-semitism, a report showed on Monday, following the arrival of large numbers of mostly Muslim migrants and refugees. Authorities pressed charges in about 1,690 cases related to right-wing extremism in 2015, the highest number to date in a single year and up from 1,200 in 2014, the report by Austria's domestic intelligence service BVT showed. The number of far-right "extremist acts" reported in 2015 - which range from hurling fireworks at migrant shelters to inciting violence on the internet - totaled 1,150 cases, up from 750 in 2014, the report also showed. Austria received around 90,000 asylum requests in 2015, mostly in the last few months of the year, after large numbers of migrants and refugees, many fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, arrived in the staunchly Roman Catholic country of 8.5 million people. "If we look at these hate crimes more closely, we see ... (they seek) to create tensions and cause splits in civil society," Martin Weiss, head of the BVT department for information gathering and investigations, told reporters. "The police and judiciary must give more attention to this because this context is a special challenge for the security forces," he said, adding that in the course of 2015 the nature of far-right crimes committed became increasingly physical. Afghans are the largest national group seeking asylum in Austria. After initially welcoming the migrants last autumn, Austria has said it cannot cope with the numbers and has coordinated border restrictions that have shut down the main Balkans migrant route from Greece to western Europe. Vienna also plans new border controls at its Brenner border crossing with Italy, incurring Rome's anger, and has tightened its asylum laws, drawing criticism from the European Union. The migrant crisis has boosted support in Austria for the right-wing Freedom Party (FPO), whose presidential nominee will confront an independent candidate in a run-off vote on May 22. The FPO regularly attracts more than 30 percent in polls. (Reporting By Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Gareth Jones)