One of the victims of the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne has told how she was surrounded by a gang of 30 “angry” men forcing her group of female friends to huddle together, holding hands for protection.
“They were full of anger, and we had to make sure that none of us were pulled away by them. They were groping us and we were trying to get away as quickly as possible,” said the 18 year-old, who gave her name only as Michelle, describing how she had gone out around 11pm and found the main station full of young men.
As the women fled, the men pressed themselves against them, stealing mobile phones, wallets and other personal possessions from their pockets as they passed.
This was just one incident among more than 100 reported cases; in the most serious assaults some women reportedly had their underwear torn from their bodies.
As reports emerged of a near-total failure by the police to take control, one officer told Bild newspaper how he and his colleagues felt “threatened” by a crowd of some 400-500 young men that swelled out of the city’s the main station, many drinking heavily.
The area is the main point of entry to the city centre and other revellers quickly found themselves caught up in the chaos.
“Hundreds of men were throwing firecrackers or rockets at groups of people,” a witness named only as Patrick told Spiegel magazine. “An ambulance was going back and forth and was also pelted with fireworks.”
The few police officers on the scene were heavily outnumbered and called for back-up, but by the time reinforcements arrived, the crowd of young men had swelled to around 1,000.
“We were called to the area because of an incident involving an aggressive crowd of some 400 people,” the unnamed police officer said. “When we arrived, we found there were a lot more completely drunk men, possibly on drugs, throwing fireworks into the crowd.
“If you spoke to a suspect, you were immediately surrounded by his friends. That was intimidating.”
It was at this point that things began to get completely out of hand. Witnesses described the crowd as “completely uninhibited and unmoved by police action”.
At 11.30pm the police moved in to clear the square in front of the station and the cathedral steps by force. They encountered considerable resistance but were able to empty the area and reopen the station entrance by 12.45am.
However, it appears that the worst assaults took place after the police cleared the square and the crowd moved on to the back streets.
“From about 1am more and more complaints came in from women who had been sexually assaulted or robbed,” the police officer continued.
“If an incident was reported, by the time we got to the scene no one was there. We were shocked by the scale of the crimes. Unfortunately we couldn’t prevent them.”