Germans divided on who to blame for New Year's Eve sex assaults

COLOGNE, Germany -- Amid widespread shock over a string of sexual assaults in this cosmopolitan German city on New Year's Eve, the response was divided Wednesday: blame the police or chide the victims, deport criminal foreigners or prevent migrants from entering the country in the first place.

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The reaction in Cologne reflects a broader debate as Germany struggles to reconcile law and order with its new-found role as a haven for those seeking a better life.

Police descriptions of the perpetrators as of "Arab or North African origin" were seized on by those calling for an end to Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy toward people fleeing violence and persecution -- even as authorities warned they don't know if any of the culprits are refugees.

Adding to the controversy were remarks by Cologne's mayor, Henriette Reker, suggesting that women can protect themselves from strange men on the streets by keeping them "more than an arm's length" away -- words that were widely ridiculed on social media Wednesday for putting the onus on the victims.

At least 106 women have come forward to file criminal complaints of sexual assault and robbery during the New Year's Eve festivities, authorities said, including two accounts of rape.

The attacks were seized on by opponents of Germany's welcoming stance toward those fleeing conflict.

"This is where Merkel's irresponsible immigration policy will lead us," declared Thorsten Craemer of the far-right fringe party ProNRW, which staged a small rally in front of Cologne's main train station, the site of the attacks. "There will be battles for resources, confrontations far worse than what we've experienced on New Year's Eve."

His fellow activists -- fewer than 10 in total -- were far outnumbered by counter-demonstrators shouting them down with slogans such as "East or West, down with the Nazi plague."

Among the counter-protesters was Antonia Rabente, a 26-year-old student and union activist who expressed anguish at the assaults.

"On the one hand there's a feeling that what happened is wrong and many people are concerned about this. But where people are split is in how to respond," she said. "I think it's important to keep the focus on the women who were affected. They (mustn't be) misused for attacks on the right to asylum."

Germany was one of the few European countries to welcome the influx of refugees last year. Many Germans cheered as weary Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis stepped off trains in Munich, Frankfurt and Hamburg last summer and tens of thousands have volunteered to help the new arrivals.

That euphoria has given way to the realization that integrating the nearly 1.1 million people who came to Germany last year will be a long and difficult task, even as many Germans have been heartened by Merkel's mantra, "We can do this."

Gudrun Sauer, a retired civil servant, said it would be wrong to blame the latest wave of refugees for the assaults. "The people who come here and went through such hardship, they're hoping for a better future," she said. "I don't think they'd risk doing something like that."

But like her husband Walter, she questioned whether German law is too lax on criminal foreigners and said the police should have intervened sooner to prevent the New Year's Eve assaults.

Police initially failed to mention the assaults in their report the following morning, describing the festivities as "largely peaceful."

Cologne Police Chief Wolfgang Albers acknowledged the mistake, but dismissed widespread criticism that officers were overwhelmed and reacted too slowly in protecting the women.

"When the situation became tense in front of the train station -- there were a thousand men who were completely out of control -- the police cleared the square," he told public broadcaster ARD. "It was a difficult operation (and) the police did an exemplary job."

Witnesses told a different story. German media quoted dozens of women who said they were followed by groups of men who groped them, tried to pull off their clothes and stole valuables.

On Wednesday, police said the number of women alleging they were sexually assaulted or robbed had risen to 106.

At least three-quarters of the criminal complaints filed included an alleged sexual assault, Cologne police spokesman Christoph Gilles told The Associated Press, adding that "in two cases we are investigating crimes that amount to rape."

He said police had arrested four suspects.

Express, a tabloid newspaper based in Cologne, suggested Albers should resign. "The reputation of the Cologne police has taken a nationwide hit," the paper said in editions hitting newsstands Thursday.

Among the angles police are investigating is whether there are any links to similar crimes committed over the past two years by men suspected to be of North African origin in the nearby city of Duesseldorf, some 25 miles (40 kilometres) away.

Gilles, the police spokesman, urged more victims to come forward, saying they would be treated "very sensitively."

Concern over authorities' treatment of women were further inflamed by Cologne Mayor Reker's remarks Tuesday when asked what women can do to protect themselves.

"There is always the possibility of keeping a certain distance, more than an arm's length" from strangers, she said.

Critics lashed out on social media at Reker -- who was sworn into the job less than a month ago -- saying the remarks amounted to blaming women for the attacks and were ludicrous considering the crowded streets on New Year's Eve.

Reker said Wednesday that she regretted any misunderstanding, but had merely been pointing to existing prevention and counselling programs in response to a journalist's question.

Pointing to the city's alcohol-soaked Carnival celebrations next month, Reker was also quoted as saying that misunderstandings with men could be avoided if women did not "hug everyone who smiles at them."

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.


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