Some of those involved in a series of sexual assaults against women in the German city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve claimed to be Syrian refugees, according to a leaked police report.
The outbreak of violence was also far more serious than previously thought, and at one point senior police officers feared “there could have been fatalities”.
Two publications have released what they claim is an internal report by a senior officer who was at the scene.
Ministers have said there is no evidence asylum seekers were involved in the violence.
But the leaked police report, published in Bild newspaper and Spiegel, a news magazine, claims that one of those involved told officers: “I am Syrian. You have to treat me kindly. Mrs Merkel invited me.”
Another tore up his residence permit before the eyes of police, and told them: “You can’t do anything to me, I can get a new one tomorrow.”
A local newspaper reported that fifteen asylum-seekers from Syria and Afghanistan were briefly held by police on New Year’s Eve in connection with the sex attacks but were released.
The Express newspaper quoted an unnamed police officer who said his squad had detained several people who had “only been in Germany for a few weeks”.
“Of these people, 14 were from Syria and one was from Afghanistan. That’s the truth. Although it hurts,” he said.
The newspaper quoted a second police officer as confirming the 15 who were held had “residence permits for the asylum procedure”. Officers took down their names, and they are in the police records, he said.
If confirmed, the report will add new weight to claims of a police cover-up. The Cologne authorities have claimed they have no evidence whether asylum-seekers were involved.
It is not clear why the suspects were released but police officers have said they were overwhelmed on the night.
Police say they have identified 16 suspects from video recordings of the incidents. It is not known if the group includes any who were detained on New Year’s Eve.
Mrs Merkel’s critics have been quick to blame the outbreak of sexual assaults and robberies in Cologne and other cities, including Hamburg, Frankfurt and Stuttgart, on the chancellor’s unpopular “open-door” refugee policy. Germany registered nearly 1.1 million asylum-seekers last year.
On Thursday, Germany’s justice minister warned that asylum-seekers could be deported if they are found to have taken part in the Cologne sexual assaults.
Heiko Maas said in an interview with the Funke newspaper group that “deportations would certainly be conceivable.”
He said the law allows for people to be deported during asylum proceedings if they’re sentenced to a year or more in prison. “The courts will have to decide on the level of sentences, but that penalty is in principle absolutely possible for sexual offenses,” he said.
Bild does not name the author of the police report, but identifies him as the commander of some 100 officers sent as reinforcements to the area outside Cologne’s main station on New Year’s Eve.
“When we arrived, our vehicles were pelted with firecrackers,” the report said. “In the forecourt and on the cathedral steps were a thousand people, mostly males of an immigrant background who were indiscriminately throwing fireworks and bottles into the crowd.”
Even the appearance of police did not stop the violence.
“Around 10.45pm, the station forecourt filled with people of an immigrant background. Women literally had to run the gauntlet through the mass of drunk men, in a way you can’t describe,” the report said.
“We came to the conclusion that the situation threatened chaos or serious injury, if it didn’t lead to fatalities.”
Police decided to clear the area but met with resistance and were “repeatedly bombarded with fireworks and pelted with bottles”. The report describes members of the crowd as having consumed a “massive” quantity of alcohol and other intoxicating substances such as cannabis.
Police succeeded in clearing the area by around 12.15am but the violence continued as the crowd moved into the back streets.
“Many women came to officers shocked and crying and reported sex assaults. Police forces were unable to respond to all the events, assaults and offences. There were just too many at the same time.”
Police were heavily outnumbered and prevented from reaching victims by the crowd, the report said. Several offenders who were ordered to leave returned to the scene and made a joke of it.
More than 150 women have filed criminal complaints, three-quarters of them for sexual assault. Two cases of rape have been reported.
Police say seven suspects have been identified so far. Two are currently being held after being arrested for harassing women on Sunday night, two days after the main incident.
Two others were briefly detained and questioned on New Year’s Eve on suspicion of pickpocketing, but later released.
None of the suspects have been named in accordance with German privacy laws.
In a separate development that could further stoke public anger, it emerged on Thursday that three Syrians have been arrested in southern Germany on suspicion of the gang rape of two teenage girls on New Year’s Eve.
The suspects have been in custody for several days but news of the arrests was kept secret to protect the privacy of the victims because they are minors, prosecutors claimed.
A 21-year-old man and two 14-year-old boys are being held in the town of Weil am Rhein, near the French and Swiss borders.
They are suspected of raping two girls, also aged 14 and 15, who spent New Year’s Eve with them at the home of the 21-year-old in the nearby village of Friedlingen.The fourth suspect is his 15-year-old brother.
Prosecutors allege they raped the two girls and held them for several hours.
Police say the suspects are not asylum seekers and they believe the incident is not connected to the sex attacks in Cologne and other German cities.
The 21-year-old suspect and his brother are German residents. The other suspects live in Switzerland and the Netherlands.