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Protesters gather near a burning barricade during demonstrations at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

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BERLIN/INGOLSTADT, Germany (Reuters) - German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said on Monday that some anti-capitalist protesters at the G20 summit in Hamburg at the weekend were "criminal anarchists" who had acted like neo-Nazis or Islamist terrorists.

About 20,000 police struggled to contain several hundred demonstrators who torched cars, looted shops and hurled Molotov cocktails and stones during the July 7-8 summit. Tens of thousands more people demonstrated peacefully.

The violence has angered Germans and raised awkward questions for Chancellor Angela Merkel less than three months before an election.

"The brutality with which extremely violent anarchists have proceeded in Hamburg since Thursday is unfathomable and scandalous," de Maiziere told reporters.

Militants who burned cars or plundered supermarkets were not activists or G20 opponents but rather "despicable violent extremists just like neo-Nazis and Islamist terrorists", the interior minister said.

He added that people who had thrown paving slabs from rooftops had essentially been "preparing attempted murder".

Martin Schulz, the Social Democrat (SPD) challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany's national election in September, said the militants had acted like terrorists.

He said the "marauding gangs" could not claim to have any political legitimacy for their actions, adding: "It had the characteristics of terrorism."

"Such small-minded skirmishes are the business of people who took a whole city hostage for their dim-wittedness in an almost terrorist manner," said Schulz, whose party is trailing Merkel's conservatives in the opinion polls.

Almost 500 officers were injured during the protests and police said on Sunday they had arrested 186 people and taken 225 into custody.

Some commentators have criticised Merkel's choice of Hamburg, a seaport with a strong radical leftist tradition, to host the meeting, saying her desire to demonstrate her commitment to freedom of speech had backfired.

Merkel has promised compensation to those who had property damaged.

De Maiziere said a triple-digit number of violent tourists had travelled to Hamburg from abroad for the protests and hundreds of other left-wing extremists had been rejected at the borders.

He said it would make sense to have a European database on left-wing extremists, who had spent up to two years preparing for the summit and had secretly taken slingshots and other objects to Hamburg long before the G20 leaders arrived.

De Maiziere said he expected judicial authorities to pass tough sentences on the militants and added that breaching the peace could result in prison sentences lasting several years.

(Reporting by Reuters TV, Michelle Martin and Sabine Siebold; Writing by Michelle Martin; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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