Germany shaken after group of 1,000 men accused of assaulting 90 women during New Year celebration
About 90 women have reported being robbed, threatened or sexually molested at New Year celebrations outside Cologne's cathedral by young, mostly drunk, men, police say, in events they have described as "a new dimension in crime".
Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers told a news conference officers described the men as from "the Arab or North African region" and mostly between 18- and 35-years-old.
"We have one complaint that represents a rape," he added.
Integration commissioner Aydan Ozoguz warned against putting foreigners and refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom have entered Germany largely from Middle Eastern war zones, under "blanket suspicion".
Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed shock over the attacks, which police said occurred when about 1,000 men split into gangs as officers cleared a square to stop fireworks being thrown from the top of steps into the crowd below.
While politicians also urged people not to become wary of all refugees, the incident has fuelled calls from right-wing groups to stop letting in asylum seekers.
Germany took in just over 1 million last year, far more than any other European country.
Cologne mayor Henriette Reker said it was "unbelievable and intolerable what happened on New Year's Eve" but there was no reason to believe those involved in the attacks were refugees.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas said Germany would not accept such attacks which he described as "a new scale of organised crime".
Around 150 people gathered in front of Cologne's cathedral on Tuesday evening to protest against violence against women.
One of them held a sign saying: "Ms Merkel, where are you? What do you say? This scares us!"
Merkel promises a 'tough response' to attacks
The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has gained in polls in part at Ms Merkel's expense thanks to a campaign against refugees, said she should close the border.
"Mrs Merkel, is Germany 'colourful and cosmopolitan' enough for you after the wave of crimes and sexual attacks?" AfD chief Frauke Petry tweeted.
Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker addresses a news conference in Cologne
Photo: Police said an attack on Henriette Reker a day before she was elected mayor appeared to be motivated by her support for refugees. (Reuters: Wolfgang Rattay)
Ms Merkel told Ms Reker in a phone call the attacks deserved a tough response.
"Everything must be done to investigate those responsible as quickly and completely as possible and punish them, regardless of where they are from," she said, according to her spokesman.
There are almost daily attacks on refugee shelters.
"Events like that in Cologne foster xenophobia," said Roland Schaefer, head of Germany's association of towns and localities.
After a crisis meeting, Cologne mayor Ms Reker said new steps would be taken to avoid a repeat, including increasing police numbers at big events and installing more security cameras.
She stressed that women must feel safe at traditional carnival celebrations next month when the city closes down for five days of drunken street parades and parties.
Ms Reker was stabbed in the neck and seriously hurt in October, just a day before she was elected mayor.
Police said that attack appeared to be motivated by her support for refugees.
Reports from people at the celebration from various sources.
"It was horror. Although we shouted and hit around us, the guys did not stop. I was desperate," a 28-year-old woman identified as Katja L. told Cologne's Express newspaper, saying she was groped about 100 times while walking 600 feet.
"They had circled us and started to grope us. They were everywhere with their hands,
"They had encircled and began to grope us us. They were with their hands everywhere. I had fingers on all body openings. When I screamed for help, they laughed. Suddenly they had took off my coat. They tried to reach for my phone. Spasmodically I have my cell phone and wallet detained. Other, such as lipstick off my coat pockets, was away."
"The women have just screamed. I tried to protect my girlfriend from the men. The other men around me were only busy to protect their women. Nevertheless, some women were attacked and grabbed between their legs. The women distributed slaps, and the men were trying to keep at bay."
One man described how his partner and 15-year-old daughter were surrounded by an enormous crowd outside the station and he was unable to help. "The attackers grabbed her and my partner's breasts and groped them between their legs."
A British woman visiting Cologne said fireworks had been thrown at her group by men who spoke neither German nor English. "They were trying to hug us, kiss us. One man stole my friend's bag," she told the BBC. "Another tried to get us into his 'private taxi'. I've been in scary and even life-threatening situations and I've never experienced anything like that."
It's strange this story only broke today, when it happened last Friday night. Have to guess the government was trying to keep it quiet for as long as they could due to the political concerns involved.