BERLIN – Thousands of people Sunday formed a human chain in the eastern German city of Dresden to mark the 66th anniversary of a deadly World War II bombing and to protest against a neo-Nazi gathering.

Some 17,000 people braved snow and sub-zero temperatures to form the three-kilometre (two-mile) long chain, city authorities said, as far-right extremists congregated ahead of a planned "funeral march" through Dresden.

Thousands of police kept the neo-Nazis away from anti-fascist activists and the protests had passed off largely peacefully by early afternoon.

"There are so many people here who want to express their opinion clearly and make Dresden a tolerant, friendly and strong city, open to the world. I am proud and grateful," said the city's deputy mayor Detlef Sittel.

"When we remember the victims of the Dresden bombings today, we remember all the victims of Nazi violence and World War II," he added.

"We will never forget."

The day began with a wreath-laying ceremony at a cemetery where thousands of victims are buried, attended by Stanislaw Tillich, who heads the regional government of Saxony and the British ambassador to Germany.

By mid-afternoon, a few hundred neo-Nazis had gathered at the city's main train station, watched over by a major police presence.

Roughly 600 counter-demonstrators from anti-fascist organisation "Nazi-free Dresden" attempted to block the extremists' march.

"Our goal is clear: the Nazi marches in Dresden must stop," said a spokeswoman for the organisation, Franziska Radtke.

Neo-Nazis also plan a march on Saturday.

"We are warming up today for next Saturday," said Thomas Bergmann, also from "Nazi-free Dresden."

A massive bombing raid by Allied forces on Dresden beginning on February 13, 1945 sparked a firestorm that destroyed much of the historical centre of the city.

Critics said the raid was strategically unjustified as Hitler's Germany was already effectively defeated and the bombs appeared to target civilians rather than military targets.

Among those who perished in the flames were hundreds of refugees who had fled the horrors of the Eastern front.

In March, an official commission concluded that up to 25,000 people died in the raids, fewer than often estimated.

Far-right groups had claimed that up to 500,000 people were killed in the "criminal" air assault on the Baroque city known as "Florence on the Elbe."

Brigitte Siebert, 64, said she joined the human chain both to protest against the neo-Nazis' misuse of the anniversary and to remember the bombing.

"I will not allow them to lord it over this day," she told AFP, referring to the extremists.

"My mother saw Dresden burning. You don't forget that."