Merkel under pressure to toughen stance on refugees after Cologne sexual assaults

 An anti-immigration supporter during a demonstration rally in Cologne, Germany on Jan 9. The sticker reads: "Merkel must go!".
An anti-immigration supporter during a demonstration rally in Cologne, Germany on Jan 9. The sticker reads: "Merkel must go!". PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (REUTERS) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced growing pressure to harden her line on refugees on Monday as the first extensive police report on New Year's Eve violence in Cologne documented rampant sexual assaults on women by gangs of young migrant men.

Cologne police said at least 11 foreigners, including Pakistanis, Guineans and Syrians, had been injured on Sunday evening in attacks by hooligans bent on revenge for the assaults in the city.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere condemned those attacks and warned against a broader backlash against refugees following the events in Cologne, which have deepened scepticism towards Merkel's policy of welcoming migrants.

The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party seized on the latest developments to attack the chancellor while members of her own conservative party warned that integrating the hundreds of thousands of migrants who arrived last year would fail if the influx were not stopped immediately.

The report from the Cologne police gave graphic descriptions of 170 criminal acts documented on New Year's Eve, of which 117 were of a sexual nature.

 

A summary listed case after case of women surrounded by gangs of men who put their hands in their pants and skirts, grabbed them between the legs, on the buttocks and the breasts, often while stealing their wallets and cell phones.

Ralf Jaeger, interior minister from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), spoke of "serious failures" by the police, who were significantly outnumbered but never called for reinforcements.

He also criticised them for refusing to communicate in the days after New Year's Eve that the vast majority of the perpetrators were people with migration backgrounds, blaming this on misguided "political correctness".

"More than 1,000 Arab and North African men gathered on New Year's Eve near Cologne cathedral and the main train station. Among them were many refugees that came to Germany in the past months," Jaeger told a special parliamentary committee in NRW, the region where Cologne lies.

"After alcohol and drug excesses came the excesses of violence, peaking with people who carried out fantasies of sexual power."

Police officer Norbert Wagner told a news conference that rocker and hooligan gangs had published an appeal on the Internet on Sunday to join them in "violence-free strolls" through Cologne, when in fact they were prowling for foreigners.

Among the victims were six Pakistanis, three Guinean citizens and two Syrians. Witnesses had also seen another man of African origin being attacked, but his identity was unclear because he had not contacted the authorities, Wagner said.

No arrests have been made. Local police are beefing up their presence in downtown Cologne in the coming days to prevent further attacks on foreigners.

The Cologne police force has also set up a 100-strong team to investigate the New Year's Eve attacks.

Merkel has repeatedly resisted pressure to introduce a cap on the number of migrants entering Germany, arguing that this could be enforced only by shutting German borders, a step that would doom Europe's Schengen free-travel zone.

The German chancellor also said on Monday that Europe was vulnerable in the refugee crisis because it was not yet in control of the situation to the extent that it would like to be.