Merkel condemns Cologne new year’s attacks on women

About 90 complaints lodged by women who passed through group of 1,000 men in city

Cologne police have reviewed complaints from women who described being robbed, sexually harassed and in one case raped as revellers poured into the city from the train station. Photograph: Oliver Berg/AFP/Getty Images

Cologne police have reviewed complaints from women who described being robbed, sexually harassed and in one case raped as revellers poured into the city from the train station. Photograph: Oliver Berg/AFP/Getty Images

 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has voiced outrage at a series of sexual assaults in the western city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, saying the perpetrators need to be found as soon as possible.

Ms Merkel called Cologne’s mayor Henriette Reker to express her concern about the assaults, which took place around Cologne’s main train station, next to the city’s famous cathedral.

In a statement, Ms Merkel office said the chancellor called for everything to be done “to find the perpetrators as quickly and comprehensively as possible and to punish them without regard to their origin or background”.

The incident has sparked a debate about the behaviour of migrants and refugees in Germany.

Witnesses and police described the perpetrators as being men of “Arab or North African origin” who had gathered in large numbers near the train station.

“We don’t currently have any suspects, so we don’t know who the perpetrators were,” Cologne’s police chief Wolfgang Albers told reporters.

“All we know is that the police at the scene perceived that it was mostly young men aged 18 to 35 from the Arab or North African region.”

Cologne’s mayor also cautioned against hasty conclusions about the perpetrators.

“It’s completely improper... to link a group that appeared to come from North Africa with the refugees,” Ms Reker said.

Police say dozens of women reported being sexually assaulted and robbed during the night from Thursday to Friday. At least 90 criminal complaints have been filed, including one allegation of rape.

Mr Albers expressed regret that initial police reports of the New Year’s festivities contained no mention of the assaults.

“The full extent of the assaults, particularly the sexual assaults, only became apparent to us the following day,” he said.

Crisis meeting

Cologne’s mayor, who held a crisis meeting with police officials on Tuesday, said her city would step up measures to prevent such attacks during the annual carnival festivities next month, during which street parties are the norm.

“We will also have to explain our carnival better to people from other cultures, so that there’s no confusion about the cheerful behaviour in Cologne that has nothing to do with candour, especially candid sexuality,” Ms Reker said.

Ms Merkel’s coalition condemned the attacks.

Interior minister Thomas de Maizière said the perpetrators were “people apparently with a migrant background.

Residents should not harbour “blanket suspicion” against refugees fleeing to Germany to escape persecution, Mr de Maizière said Tuesday.

“This is obviously a new dimension in organized crime,” justice minister Heiko Maas said in a statement.

“All the perpetrators must be investigated and brought to justice. We will not accept these cowardly and abhorrent attacks.”

The scale of the assaults became clear as criminal complaints were filed after January 1st and two suspects have been arrested, said police spokeswoman Stefanie Becker.

More than 1 million migrants and refugees arrived last year in Germany, the largest number fleeing civil war in Syria.

Possible link

Stephan Mayer, a politician in Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrat-led bloc, suggested a possible link to the Cologne events.

“It would be terrible if such crimes were committed by some of those to whom we’ve generously taken into our country,” Ms Mayer, a member of the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union, said in a statement.

“If it turns out that the majority of assailants indeed came from Arab or North African regions, that shouldn’t be hushed up.”

The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has gained in polls in part at Ms Merkel’s expense thanks to a campaign against refugees, said she should close the border. “Mrs Merkel, is Germany ‘colourful and cosmopolitan’ enough for you after the wave of crimes and sexual attacks?” tweeted AfD chief Frauke Petry.

Ms Merkel, who is facing criticism from the CSU and her own Christian Democratic Union for declining to cap the number of arrivals, reaffirmed her stance in her first public appearance of 2016.

“In our constitution, it says that human dignity is inviolable,” she told carol singers at the chancellery in Berlin.

“That applies not only to Germans and people who live in Germany” but worldwide, she said.

Mr Maas later told a news conference the assailants were well-organised. “If a thousand people gather and commit the same violation, then there is some level of organization involved,” he said.

PA/Bloomberg