German Chancellor Angela Merkel came under mounting pressure yesterday over her welcoming stance toward migrants, which opponents have linked to a shocking rash of apparently co-ordinated sex attacks in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.
Police in the western city told AFP they have received more than 100 complaints by women reporting assaults ranging from groping to two rapes, allegedly committed in a large crowd of revellers during year-end festivities outside the city’s main train station and its famed Gothic cathedral.
Victims blamed men of “Arab or North African” appearance, inflaming a public debate about Germany’s ability to cope with the nearly 1.1mn asylum seekers the country took in last year.
Authorities have said there is no concrete indication that the perpetrators were asylum seekers who arrived in last year’s record influx.
No arrests have been made.
However, critics of Merkel’s liberal refugee policy charged that the Cologne assaults proved she was playing with fire without a clear strategy to integrate the mainly Muslim newcomers who will settle in Germany.
The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which hopes to gain seats in three regional elections in March, charged the attacks were “a result of unchecked immigration”.
Late on Tuesday 200-300 people, according to police estimates, gathered in front of Cologne cathedral calling for more respect for women.
One female demonstrator held a sign reading: “Mrs Merkel, what are you doing? This is scary.”
“If asylum seekers or refugees carry out these kind of attacks ... it will bring their stay in Germany to an abrupt end,” warned Andreas Scheuer, general secretary of Merkel’s Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which has demanded she set a strict upper limit of 200,000 newcomers per year.
Merkel was due to speak at a meeting of the CSU in Bavaria, just weeks after its leader Horst Seehofer gave her a humiliating dressing-down over her position on refugees at another party event.
Merkel has urged a thorough investigation of the “repugnant” attacks in Cologne, which she said required “a tough response from the state”.
Witnesses said groups of 20-30 young, intoxicated men out of a crowd of about 1,000 people had surrounded victims, assaulted them and in several cases robbed them.
Police and crime experts have confirmed that this diversion tactic to commit theft has been known to them for some time.
Similar crimes were committed by men with “Mediterranean or Arab looks” in Hamburg, where 53 complaints were filed including 39 allegations of sexual assault and 14 of theft.
However, police in the northern city confirmed yesterday that it had no indication of a link to the Cologne attacks.
More details about that night began to emerge yesterday after false reports of 1,000 suspects circulated widely the previous day.
While roughly 1,000 men did in fact gather in the area near the main train station just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, police have confirmed that not all of them were involved in the attacks.
A plain-clothes policewoman was reportedly among those attacked.
Victims described terrifying scenes in the marauding mob.
Police are investigating whether the mass sexual assaults committed in Cologne are linked to a North African crime gang that has been known to them for more than 18 months.
Dusseldorf police confirmed that a special unit named “Casablanca” was investigating 2,000 individuals involved in a Dusseldorf-based organised crime network and that it has been working with Cologne police to determine whether it may be behind the recent assaults.
Police said yesterday that it was investigating three suspects, but refused to elaborate.
Five men taken into custody on Sunday were later found to have committed unrelated crimes.
Steffi, 31, said she saw “countless weeping women” when she arrived at the station in Cologne and was hit with a volley of sexist slurs shouted in German as she made her way through the crowd.
“I saw a girl ... who was crying, with ripped stockings, her skirt askew – she was just wrecked,” she told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
“A young guy came out of the crowd and made vulgar comments. ‘Can I help you? I know I can help you’ he said with a strong accent and made obscene gestures with his hand. When she wanted to get away, he followed her. I told him to piss off.”
Authorities urged victims to file complaints after facing accusations of initially playing down the rampage.
“We assume more people will come forward,” said police chief Wolfgang Albers, who dismissed calls yesterday for his resignation.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas warned against scapegoating refugees over the assaults, which he said “appeared to be co-ordinated”.
“No one should exploit the attacks to smear refugees as a group,” he told news agency DPA.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere lashed out at Cologne police for failing to stop the assaults.
“The police cannot work in this way,” de Maiziere told public TV channel ARD late on Tuesday. “I am urgently demanding clarification.”
Faced with accusations of self-censorship of the inflammatory case, which took four days to hit national media outlets, public broadcaster ZDF apologised for delays in reporting on the melee.
“The news situation was clear enough,” wrote deputy chief editor Elmar Thevessen on Facebook, calling it a “mistake” not to cover the incidents sooner.