BERLIN (AFP) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel came under mounting pressure Wednesday for her welcoming stance toward migrants, which opponents have linked to a shocking rash of apparently coordinated 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 at least one reported rape, 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, enflaming a heated public debate about Germany’s ability to cope with the nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers the country took in 2015.
Authorities have said there is no concrete indication that the perpetrators were asylum seekers who arrived in last year’s record influx, whose total was confirmed by the interior ministry Wednesday.
However, critics of Merkel’s liberal refugee policy charged that the Cologne assaults proved she was playing with fire without clear plans how to integrate the mainly Muslim newcomers.
The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which hopes to gain seats in three regional elections in March, seized on the attacks as “a result of unchecked immigration”.
“Here we see the appalling consequences of catastrophic asylum and migration policies on Germany’s everyday reality,” party leader Frauke Petry said.
‘Merkel, what are you doing?’
Late 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, 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 later Wednesday, just weeks after its leader Horst Seehofer gave her a humiliating dressing-down over her position on refugees at another party event.
In Brussels, EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos was hosting an emergency meeting of ministers from Sweden, Denmark and Germany amid concerns for the Schengen passport-free zone after Stockholm and Copenhagen this week tightened their border controls due to the migrant crisis.
Merkel on Tuesday urged a thorough investigation of the “repugnant” attacks and called Cologne’s mayor, Henriette Reker, to express her “outrage” over the violence, which she said required “a tough response from the state”.
“Everything must be done to find as many of the perpetrators as quickly as possible and bring them to justice, regardless of their origin or background,” she said.
Witnesses in Cologne said groups of 20-30 young men had surrounded victims, assaulted them and in several cases robbed them.
A plain-clothes policewoman was reportedly among those attacked.
“We assume more people will come forward,” said police chief Wolfgang Albers, who on Wednesday dismissed calls for his resignation.
The northern port city of Hamburg said it had received 27 reports of similar attacks at New Year’s street parties.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas warned against scapegoating refugees over the assaults, which he said “appeared to be coordinated”.
“No one should exploit the attacks to smear refugees as a group,” he told German news agency DPA.
“Even if asylum-seekers were among the perpetrators, that is no reason to place all refugees under general suspicion.”
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 Tuesday.
Police said they evacuated the area because of fears people could be injured by fireworks — and admitted the assaults then began without them realising what was happening.
“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, de Maiziere said.
“I am urgently demanding clarification.”
Cologne mayor Reker, who was stabbed in the neck in October in an attack apparently over her pro-refugee stance, pledged to step up security measures ahead of next month’s raucous Carnival, which draws hundreds of thousands to party in the city’s streets.
Albers said security cameras and better lighting would be installed for the February 4-10 event, including around the main rail station.