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Merkel under fire after New Year sex assaults – Victims blamed men of ‘Arab or North African’ appearance

COLOGNE: In this Dec 31, 2015 picture, people gather at the Cologne main station. — AP
COLOGNE: In this Dec 31, 2015 picture, people gather at the Cologne main station. — AP

BERLIN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel came under mounting pressure yesterday over 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 said they have received more than 100 complaints by women reporting assaults ranging from groping to two rapes, allegedly committed in a large crowd of revelers 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, inflaming a heated public debate about Germany’s ability to cope with the nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers the country took in last year. Authorities have said there is no concrete indication that the perpetrators were asylum seekers who arrived in last year’s record influx. No arrests have been made.

However critics of Merkel’s liberal refugee policy charged that the Cologne assaults proved she was playing with fire without a clear strategy to integrate the mainly Muslim newcomers who will settle in Germany. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which hopes to gain seats in three regional elections in March, charged the attacks were “a result of unchecked immigration”. 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”.

‘Countless weeping women’

“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, just weeks after its leader Horst Seehofer gave her a humiliating dressing-down over her position on refugees at another party event.

Meanwhile in Brussels, EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos hosted 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.

The two countries agreed to lift temporary border checks as soon as possible, but only after migrant flows decline. Merkel has urged a thorough investigation of the “repugnant” attacks in Cologne, which she said required “a tough response from the state”. Witnesses said groups of 20-30 young, intoxicated men out of a crowd of about 1,000 people had surrounded victims, assaulted them and in several cases robbed them. A plain-clothes policewoman was reportedly among those attacked.

Victims described terrifying scenes in the marauding mob. Steffi, 31, said she saw “countless weeping women” when she arrived at the station and was hit with a volley of sexist slurs shouted in German as she made her way through the crowd. “I saw a girl… who was crying, with ripped stockings, her skirt askew-she was just wrecked,” she told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

“A young guy came out of the crowd and made vulgar comments. ‘Can I help you? I know I can help you’ he said with a strong accent and made obscene gestures with his hand. When she wanted to get away, he followed her. I told him to piss off.” Authorities urged victims to file complaints after facing accusations of initially playing down the rampage. “We assume more people will come forward,” said police Chief Wolfgang Albers, who yesterday dismissed calls for his resignation. The northern port city of Hamburg said it had received 53 reports of similar attacks at New Year’s street parties.

‘General suspicion’

Justice Minister Heiko Maas warned against scape goating 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 news agency DPA. 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. “I am urgently demanding clarification.” Faced with accusations of self-censorship of the inflammatory case, which took four days to hit national media outlets, public broadcaster ZDF apologized for delays in reporting on the melee. “The news situation was clear enough,” wrote deputy chief editor Elmar Thevessen on Facebook, calling it a “mistake” not to cover the incidents sooner. – AFP

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