German police said on Tuesday that they are hunting for a group of up to 1,000 men of “Arab or North African origin,” believed to the migrants, accused of throwing fireworks into crowds during New Year’s celebrations in the early hours of Friday outside the Cologne main train station, near the city’s cathedral. The gang, described as mostly young and drunk, was also accused of robbing, threatening, and sexually assaulting dozens of women caught up in the chaos that ensued.
Police said they received multiple complaints from women who said they were assaulted around the main train station in Cologne on Thursday night and in the early hours of Friday. About 90 women have reported being robbed and sexually molested, but police said there were likely more victims who have not come forward.
One woman, according to police, reported rape. Several men also reported being assaulted and robbed.
People celebrating the New Year outside the Cologne train station were forced to flee when the gang of “foreign-looking men” began throwing fireworks into the crowds.
“There were thousands of men. Simply firing into the crowd, and my girlfriend and I wanted to get us to safety, but they blocked our way. We were so scared! We fled from the station.”
Police described the series of robberies and sexual assaults as a “completely new dimension of crime,” saying they have made only five arrests.
Cologne Police Chief Wolfgang Albers said at a news conference that witnesses described the men who carried out the assaults as “foreign-looking,” mostly young men between 18 and 35 years old, of “Arab or North African origin.”
Albers said, “We have one complaint that represents a rape.”
“The crimes have been committed by a group of people who mostly come from the North African and Arab countries.”
Albers said that when the group of about 1,000 men began throwing fireworks from the top of steps into crowds below, police tried to clear the square, but the men split up into smaller groups and began attacking people.
Police were able to arrest only five men.
A female victim of sexual assault, identified simply as 28-year-old “Katja L,” described her experience with two female friends and a male friend to the German newspaper Der Express.
“When we came out of the station, we were very surprised by the group [of exclusively young foreign men] that met us there. We then walked through this group of men. There was an alley through [the men] which we walked through. Suddenly I felt a hand on my buttocks, then on my breasts, in the end, I was groped everywhere. It was a nightmare. Although we shouted and beat them, the guys did not stop. I was desperate and think I was touched around 100 times in the 200 meters. Fortunately I wore a jacket and trousers. A skirt would probably have been torn away from me.”
Another victim described how the men laughed as they pulled her hair and tore off her tights and underwear, shouting “f**ky, f**ky.”
Police said that in addition to the sexual assaults the gang of “foreign-looking men” also engaged in drunken brawls.
Police handling of the incident has come under scrutiny. According to reports, the police response was grossly inadequate. Only 10 officers were dispatched to the station following complaints of sexual assaults. Police were also criticized for making only five arrests despite security cameras at the scene of the crimes.
While some have raised questions about claims that the men were migrants, some media reports said that police found the arrested men carrying official immigration papers.
German media reports quoted Albers saying it was “an intolerable situation that such crimes are committed in the middle of the city.”
Justice Minister Heiko Maas described the incident as a “new scale of organized crime.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed shock at the incident. Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker described it as “unbelievable and intolerable.”
Merkel reportedly told Reker in a phone call, “Everything must be done to investigate those responsible as quickly and completely as possible and punish them, regardless of where they are from.”
But integration commissioner Aydan Ozoguz warned against the tendency to use the incident as an excuse to put foreigners and refugees under a “blanket of suspicion.”
However, the latest incident is certain to further fuel anti-migrant sentiments in Germany and increase support for right-wing groups calling for the government to stop letting in refugees.
Germany took in about one million refugees from Middle Eastern areas affected by war last year, more than any other European or Western country.
Germany remains divided over the decision to take in refugees from the Middle East. Groups supporting and opposing refugees have held demonstrations and protests.
[Photo By Markus Schreiber/AP]