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BERLIN (AP) _ Berlin police said Wednesday they arrested 616 people during May Day street clashes with far-left militants who pelted them with stones and set cars ablaze _ a jump in arrests compared to last year.

Intent on cleaning up the German capital's image, city officials defended their hard-line strategy against the disturbances in the face of criticism by some local politicians that police were too heavy-handed.

The city had banned a traditional May Day anti-capitalist demonstration and deployed a massive police presence Tuesday, trying to end riots that have become a 14-year-old tradition on May 1.

City officials called the strategy a success and said the hard line would continue in the future. ``Our experience has shown that the more room we give to far-left extremists, the more violent it becomes,'' said Eckart Werthebach, the Berlin interior minister.

City police chief Hagen Saberschinsky cited 30 major incidents in Tuesday's disturbances, half the number last year. A total 400 people were arrested last year. He said 163 officers were injured, compared to 288 injured officers the previous May Day.

Some 9,000 police were in the streets Tuesday. Police and far-left protesters battled in the central Kreuzberg district, a hotbed of Berlin's alternative scene and street troubles.

Riot police backed by helicopters turned water cannons on hundreds of young militants who pelted them with bottles and cobblestones, smashed cars and shop windows and threw up flaming roadblocks.