Cologne divided over who to blame for assaults

(File, AP)
(File, AP)

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

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.

Sexual assault

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 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."

Difficult task

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 realisation 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."

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, about 40km away.


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