COLOGNE –– Germany’s Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maiziere has strongly criticized police handling of gang attacks on women and girls in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.
“The police shouldn’t work like this,” he said, as it emerged three suspects had been identified.
More than 100 victims have complained of being sexually assaulted or robbed by gangs of up to 30 men, reportedly of Arab or North African appearance.
Officials say the violence should not cast suspicion against all refugees.
A crowd of about 1,000 men had gathered in the square outside Cologne station during New Year’s Eve, letting off fireworks. Many were drunk and aggressive.
Police eventually evacuated the area because of the risk of injury from the fireworks.
But gangs of youths soon returned and carried out dozens of attacks over a number of hours with little apparent response from the local authorities until well after midnight.
Two women in Cologne have told police they were raped and many were groped, including a volunteer policewoman. Minister of Justice Heiko Maas said the attacks appeared to have been co-ordinated and spoke of “a new scale of organized crime”.
Women were also targeted in Hamburg and Stuttgart. More than 30 complaints have been filed by women saying they were indecently assaulted or robbed on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn.
Police in Stuttgart say several women were attacked at Schlossplatz in the city centre.
Hundreds of people protested near Cologne station last night, angered by the brazen attacks and by the slow response of political leaders.
Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed outrage over the “disgusting attacks” and the Minister of the Interior was asked about the police response on national TV.
De Maiziere criticized police for allowing the attackers to return. The square was evacuated, he said, “and then later these events take place and they wait for complaints. The police shouldn’t work like this”.
The widespread identification of the attackers as North African or Arab in appearance has also caused considerable alarm because of the influx of more than a million migrants and refugees in the past year. Many of the incomers have fled the conflict in Syria.
The “anti-Islamisation” Pegida movement and the right-wing AfD said the attacks were a consequence of large-scale migration. AfD leader Frauke Petry asked if, after the attacks, Germany was now sufficiently “diverse and cosmopolitan”.
De Maiziere emphasized there should not be any general suspicion towards refugees, at least “at this stage of the investigation”.
“But if North Africans were the perpetrators, for which there is some indication, there should not be a taboo and people should not gloss over it.”
Cologne’s Mayor Henriette Reker had earlier said it was “completely improper” to link the attackers “who appeared to come from North Africa” with refugees.
But she was herself mocked for urging young women and girls to adopt a code of conduct that meant keeping an “arm’s length” distance from strangers and sticking with a group of people.
North Rhine-Westphalia Minister of the Interior Ralf Jaeger told journalists today that three suspects had been identified, although no arrests had been made.
He warned that anti-immigrant groups were trying to use the attacks to stir up hatred against refugees.
Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers has rejected criticism of his force, describing what happened as “a completely new dimension of crime”.
But police union chief Rainer Wendt said a lack of resources meant that the Cologne force had been unable to clear the square properly.
Wendt was critical of the Berlin government, arguing that federal officers who had the task of policing the station itself had been deployed in recent months to strengthen border security in Bavaria.
Cologne authorities are particularly concerned that the attacks might hit the city’s reputation ahead of its February carnival, when hundreds of thousands of revellers are expected on the streets.