Protest in Cologne after sexual assaults by mob

Protesters on Tuesday marching through the main train station near where the assaults took place in Cologne, Germany. The placard reads "Against Sexism - Against Racism". Cologne police say they believe several hundred men were involved in the violen
Protesters on Tuesday marching through the main train station near where the assaults took place in Cologne, Germany. The placard reads "Against Sexism - Against Racism". Cologne police say they believe several hundred men were involved in the violence. PHOTO: REUTERS

Reports of groping and thefts on New Year's Day renew tensions over refugees, migrants

BERLIN • Hundreds of people have gathered in the German city of Cologne to protest over sexual assaults and thefts carried out by groups of men in the early hours of New Year's Day.

Some held up signs demanding action from Chancellor Angela Merkel, with one sign saying: "Mrs Merkel, what are you doing? This is scary."

Dr Merkel has called Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker, expressed outrage over the "disgusting attacks" and said everything must be done to find those responsible, according to the Chancellor's spokesman.

Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers told a news conference that officers described the men as looking like they were from "the Arab or North African region" and mostly between 18 and 35 years old.

The true scale of the assaults - ranging from groping to at least one reported rape - did not emerge until Tuesday, as the complaints from female victims in Cologne reached at least 90. The port city of Hamburg also reported around 10 similar attacks.

Cologne police say they believe several hundred men, ranging in age from 15 to 35, were involved in the violence that began in the early hours of New Year's Day, after the public square in front of the city's main train station was cleared because men had been throwing firecrackers into the crowd.

As the square was emptied, the men appeared to have broken into smaller groups, police said, with each group encircling a woman.

Victims described terrifying scenes in the chaos.

Ms Katja L., 28, said she was with three friends outside the station when they encountered a group of "foreign-looking men".

"Suddenly I felt a hand on my bottom, then on my breasts, then I was groped everywhere," she told Cologne tabloid Express. "It was horrible. Although we screamed and flailed about, the guys didn't stop. I was beside myself and think that I was touched about 100 times..."

The true scale of the assaults - ranging from groping to at least one reported rape - did not emerge until Tuesday, as the complaints from female victims in Cologne reached at least 90. The port city of Hamburg also reported around 10 similar attacks.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere on Tuesday lashed out at police for failing to stop the sexual assaults. "It is not acceptable that the square could be evacuated and then (the attacks) take place" in the same location, with officers "waiting for complaints" from victims before taking action, Mr de Maiziere said.

The city's police have admitted that the assaults began without them realising what was happening, and even released a statement on New Year's Day stating that the evening passed without incident.

There is an intense debate in Germany about refugees and migrants, as Germany took in just over a million last year, far more than any other European country. With roughly one million people, Cologne is among Germany's most ethnically diverse cities, and it took in more than 10,000 refugees last year.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas warned against using the attacks to bolster anti-refugee sentiment.

"In criminal law what's important is proving a crime, and everyone is equal before the law," he said. "It doesn't matter where someone comes from, it matters what they did and that we can prove it."

Far-right politicians seized on the episode, saying it demonstrated the dangers of accepting huge numbers of migrants. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) said the border should be closed, with AfD chief Frauke Petry tweeting: "Mrs Merkel, is Germany 'colourful and cosmopolitan' enough for you after the wave of crimes and sexual attacks?"

Ms Reker, Cologne's Mayor, who was stabbed during a campaign event in October by a German man who opposed her welcoming attitude towards migrants, sought on Tuesday to play down the links to refugees, after a crisis meeting with police, state and city officials.

"There are no indications that this involved people who have sought shelter in Cologne as refugees," Ms Reker said.

She pledged to step up security and violence-prevention measures ahead of next month's raucous Cologne Carnival, which draws hundreds of thousands to party in the city's streets.

Mr Albers added that security cameras and better lighting would be installed for the Feb 4-10 event, including around the main rail station.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2016, with the headline 'Protest in Cologne after sexual assaults by mob'. Print Edition | Subscribe