Officials in Germany have sought to dampen speculation that the suspected perpetrators of sexual assaults and robberies against dozens of women during New Year’s celebrations were refugees.
Police have not yet made any arrests after 90 criminal complaints were filed in the city of Cologne, including one allegation of rape. It is believed that around 1,000 men, who split into gangs, were involved in the attacks at the city’s train station.
The men who targeted the women appeared to be of “Arab or North African origin” according to police – a description which has led some people to criticise German Chancellor Angela Merkel for welcoming one million refugees into the country last year.
But officials have warned against such speculation. Cologne’s mayor, Henriette Reker, told reporters: “It’s completely improper… to link a group that appeared to come from North Africa with the refugees."
Her comments were echoed by Wolfgang Albers, Cologne’s police chief, who said it was “absolutely inadmissible” to speculate that the perpetrators were refugees.
“We don’t currently have any suspects, so we don’t know who the perpetrators were. All we know is that the police at the scene perceived that it was mostly young men aged 18 to 35 from the Arab or North African region.”
The Chancellor’s office said Ms Merkel had “expressed her outrage about these despicable assaults and sexual attacks” and called for the perpetrators to be found “as quickly and comprehensively as possible and to punish them without regard to their origin or background”.
Although no arrests have been made, the incident has led some people to criticise the Chancellor’s tolerance towards refugees.
Christopher Freiherr von Mengersen, head of the nationalist Pro-NRW movement, told The New York Times: “It is time to send a signal. We locals can no longer put up with everything that is being routinely swept under the rug based on a false sense of tolerance.”
Frauke Petry, leader of the nationalist party Alternative for Germany, which has called for a clampdown of the number of asylum-seekers entering the country, said: “Is this the ‘cosmopolitan and [colourful]’ Germany that Merkel wished for?”
On Tuesday night, around 300 people gathered to protest near the site of the assaults in front of Cologne Cathedral. One woman held a sign with the words: “Mrs Merkel, where are you? What do you say? This is scary.”
Police have urged witnesses to come forward with any information they may have.
Additional reporting by agencies