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article imageGermany's Oktoberfest opens in shadow of refugee crisis

By Deborah Cole (AFP)     Sep 19, 2015 in World

Munich taps the keg Saturday on its Oktoberfest, the world's biggest beer festival with six million revellers expected, just as the German city grapples with a record refugee influx.

The celebration of traditional Bavarian culture with its oompah music and beloved frothy beverage will kick off at midday (1000 GMT) when Mayor Dieter Reiter hammers open the first beer barrel and pours a drink.

While the mood in town in the run-up to the 16-day event remains undauntedly festive, Munich has had to plan its huge annual party just as it became a flashpoint of Europe's migrant crisis.

More than 20,000 people, many of them Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis fleeing war and persecution, have descended on the city of 1.4 million on each of the last two weekends.

They were met with a overwhelmingly positive reception from the public, including an outpouring of donations.

However the number of arrivals has dropped markedly in the last week to a few hundred per day due to border controls implemented from Sunday at the request of Bavarian authorities, who had described themselves as overwhelmed by developments.

Migrants at Zagreb's main railway station board a train for Munich on September 17  2015
Migrants at Zagreb's main railway station board a train for Munich on September 17, 2015
, AFP

Migrants are now being picked up at the Austrian border and put on buses and trains to other German regions, most now bypassing Munich, where some 6,000 asylum-seekers are housed in temporary shelters.

"The situation is more relaxed than it was in recent days," federal police spokesman Wolfgang Hauner said Friday.

Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann, who had warned of a potential culture clash between Muslim refugees and beer-swilling merrymakers, on Friday appointed a migration crisis team on the eve of the event.

"This is intended to deal with the relevant security issues, particularly with the start of Oktoberfest," he said.

The Oktoberfest grounds ahead of its opening on Saturday
The Oktoberfest grounds ahead of its opening on Saturday
Matthias Balk, DPA/AFP

Police will deploy 500 officers at the sprawling Wiesn fairgrounds, and mount a security operation at the main railway station to keep drunken party-goers separate from arriving migrants.

Although Oktoberfest began 205 years ago, this year marks the 182nd edition as the party was cancelled during two world wars, two cholera outbreaks, Napoleon's invasion of Bavaria and the hyperinflation of the 1920s.

Prices for a "Mass" or large glass of beer have soared in recent years and will now set drinkers back between 10 euros ($11.40) and 10.40 euros.

Visitors from around the world wear the traditional Tracht, sometimes hastily bought at a vendor's stand: lederhosen (leather shorts) and embroidered braces for men and dirndls, pleated smocks worn with low-cut blouses, for women.

The annual Oktoberfest beer party gets under way in Munich on Saturday
The annual Oktoberfest beer party gets under way in Munich on Saturday
Sven Hoppe, DPA/AFP

Both are designed to expand to accommodate an expanding beer belly.

The festival was originally held in October as the name suggests to celebrate a royal wedding but was brought forward by one month to take advantage of better weather.

The format has been exported around the world and versions of the festival can be found as far afield as China, Brazil, Canada, the United States, Russia and Australia.

This year's event runs until October 4.

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