German police are investigating reports that scores of women were sexually assaulted and mugged in Cologne city centre during New Year’s Eve celebrations, in what a minister called a “completely new dimension of crime”.
Authorities and media were accused of a cover-up linked to initial indications that, according to the police, those allegedly responsible for the sex attacks and numerous robberies were of Arab and north African origin.
Sixty complaints were filed to police, a third of which were linked to sexual assault. Cologne’s mayor, Henriette Reker, called an emergency meeting of high-ranking security officials on Tuesday, saying her aim was to ensure the city centre did not turn into a “lawless zone”.
Between 500 and 1,000 men described as drunk and aggressive are believed to have been behind the attacks on partygoers in the centre of the western German city. Whether they were working as a single group or in separate gangs remains unclear.
Women reported being tightly surrounded by groups of men who harassed and mugged them. Some people threw fireworks into the crowds, adding to the chaos.
“Sexual crimes took place on a huge scale,” said the police president, Wolfgang Albers. “The crimes were committed by a group of people who from appearance were largely from the north African or Arab world.”
He said one of the victims had been raped. A volunteer policewoman was among those said to have been sexually assaulted.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, called Reker to express her outrage, according to a statement from her office. She called for authorities to find the perpetrators as “quickly and comprehensively as possible and to punish them without regard to their origin or background.”
Officers are working on the assumption that the men had organised their plan of attack. They said many of the perpetrators were known to them and some may have been asylum seekers, though not new arrivals to Germany.
Similar attacks are believed to have taken place on a smaller scale in Hamburg’s red light district of St Pauli on New Year’s Eve, according to a police spokesman.
In Cologne, police said the men appeared to have come from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and were on average in their mid-20s. They had gathered on the square in front of the main train station next to the city’s towering Gothic cathedral and smaller groups of men appeared to repeatedly leave the group to target female revellers, many of whom had arrived via train from the provinces around Cologne to celebrate the new year in the city.
Heiko Maas, Germany’s justice minister, condemned the attacks and called for better police protection in German cities. “The despicable attacks on women will not be tolerated. This is obviously a completely new dimension of organised crime,” he tweeted.
Barbara Steffens, the minister for emancipation in the North Rhine Westphalia (NRW) government, said the New Year’s Eve incident was “the tip of a very unpleasant iceberg”. She called for a “larger societal condemnation of a male abuse of power”.
The density of the crowds in Cologne meant that hundreds of police were deployed on Thursday night. Questions are being asked as to how they failed to realise until much later that crimes were taking place on such a large scale. Police say the full extent of the attacks only became clear in the following days as increasing numbers of victims began to come forward. It is believed that many women have yet to report assaults, and police appealed for people who had not already done so to come forward.
Arnold Plickert, head of the police trade union in NRW, told the Deutsche Presse Agentur that the incidents were “of a new quality … What we’ve been able to establish is that this is an organised method.”
He said questions needed to be asked as to “how it was possible that this thousand-strong group was able to come to Cologne and meet up there”.
Police in Hamburg said some aspects of the attackers’ methods were akin to those of skilled pickpockets operating in the city.
Officers of Operation New Year, set up to investigate the attacks, will examine CCTV footage from in and around the station in an effort to identify perpetrators. Reker said a discussion on installing further cameras would form part of her emergency talks.
One of the victims, identified only as Katja L, told the Kölner Express: “When we came out of the station, we were very surprised by the group we met, which was made up only of foreign men … We walked through the group of men, there was a tunnel through them, we walked through … I was groped everywhere. It was a nightmare. Although we shouted and hit them, they men didn’t stop. I was horrified and I think I was touched around 100 times over the 200 metres.”
One investigator told the Kölner Express: “The female victims were so badly pushed about, they had heavy bruises on their breasts and behinds.”
Critics of Merkel’s open-door policy on refugees were quick to blame it for the attacks, despite the police’s insistence that the alleged perpetrators were not new arrivals.
One tweet attributed to a follower of Pegida, the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant protest group , stated: “Merkel … you’re an accessory to the abuse at Cologne.”
On Pegida’s Facebook page, a woman identifying herself as Angelina Southern got more than 500 likes for her comment: “I could puke when I read this, and there are still so many deluded idiots who say ‘Welcome refugees’ … Close the borders now. For God’s sake, Merkel belongs on the scaffold.”
The attacks have been the main talking point on Twitter in Germany, with some people accusing the media of a cover-up and others expressing their concern that the incident would be seized on by anti-refugee groups.
On New Year’s Eve worldwide attention had been focused on the southern German city of Munich where areas around the main station and another station outside the centre were closed after intelligence reports indicated that Islamic State supporters planned to launch attacks. It followed the cancellation of a football match in the northern city of Hanover in November after a French tipoff that Isis planned to target the stadium.
In October, Reker, was the victim of a vicious attack over her refugee-friendly policies when she was stabbed in the neck by a man during her campaign as an independent candidate for the mayorship.
Each subsequent incident has prompted an escalation in the fierce debate over whether Germany is making itself more vulnerable due to its refugee policy.