By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - The German government on Monday condemned suspected cases of abuse against refugees in which asylum-seekers were maltreated by security guards and even forced to lie in a bed filled with vomit.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said pictures published in German media that appear to show private security guards abusing refugees were repulsive and shocking.
Rights groups also criticised the apparent abuses, which evoked the violations by American guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that emerged in 2004.
Authorties in North Rhine-Westphalia state are investigating six security guards. Seibert said Germany would not tolerate such abominable behavior.
"If what is in the pictures is confirmed, that the refugees are indeed being abused and humiliated, it would be a most repulsive act," Seibert told a news conference in Berlin.
In one picture a security guard is seen stepping on the head of a handcuffed refugee lying on the floor at a refugee center while another picture shows a 20-year-old refugee from Algeria being forced to get into a bed covered with vomit.
In a video, the refugee is heard to ask why the guard wants to torture him by forcing him into the vomit-filled bed. "A good Christian turns the other cheek," the guard tells him.
Germany, partly due to its Nazi past, is one of the world's leading destinations for people fleeing oppression and war. It had the largest number of new asylum claims among industrialised nations in the first half of 2014 - 65,700, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
"Germany is a humane country that holds human rights in high high regard," Seibert said. The government is confident the investigation by local authorities will be conducted thoroughly and quickly, he added.
"Everyone is shocked when they see pictures like this and wants to know what happened," he said when asked if Germany's reputation had been damaged. "If what the pictures suggest really happened then those responsible have to be held accountable."
Guenter Burkhard, director of the "Pro Asyl" lobby group, said it was appalling to think that what appear to be right-wing extremists could be hired by private security firms without proper background checks.
"It's a shock to think that people who came to Germany to escape repression are then tortured here by private security guards," he said. "There's something wrong when people with right-wing ideologies are turned loose on refugees."
Maria Scharlau, an official at Amnesty International in Germany, said it was "an appalling abuse of power when people assigned to protect the refugees end up maltreating them."
Local authorities said the security guards faced charges of bodily harm. They have interviewed about 96 of the 700 refugees at the centres in the western state where the guards were stationed. The private firm handling security was fired.
"We will not tolerate any violence against those seeking asylum," said the state's interior minister Ralf Jaeger. "Anyone who threatens or abuses anyone in such a dire position must face severe punishment."
The German government said that the number of refugees through the first eight months of the year was up to 99,592 - an increase of 60 percent from the year earlier period. About 20 percent of those applications were from Syrian refugees.
The next largest groups of refugees came from Serbia, Eritrea and Afghanistan. On top of the 99,592 are another 20,000 injured or ill refugees from Syria.
The increase is one of the factors that may have helped a new right-leaning party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), at the polls as it won more than 10 percent of the vote in three eastern state elections in the last month.
(Reporting By Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Angus MacSwan)