Police in Germany said they are investigating whether a string of sexual assaults and thefts during New Year’s celebrations in Cologne is linked to a known criminal network in the nearby city of Duesseldorf.
The assaults last week have prompted outrage in Germany and a fresh debate about immigration, after police said the perpetrators appeared to be of “Arab or North African origin.”
A more nuanced picture of what happened in the New Year’s Eve chaos outside the Cologne train station emerged on Jan. 6.
Police said about 1,000 men gathered there and that smaller groups surrounded individual women, harassed them and stole their belongings. Police do not believe all 1,000 men were involved in the attacks, though they have not said how many were.
The interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia state, where Cologne and Duesseldorf are located, told news agency dpa that police have identified three suspects but have not yet arrested anyone.
About 90 people filed criminal complaints, though police have not said how many of them were women who were sexually assaulted. At least one woman said she was raped.
Police said some of the assaults in Cologne appeared similar to incidents that have been reported over the past two years in Duesseldorf, where men have groped women to distract them before stealing their belongings. The two cities are 25 miles apart.
Duesseldorf police were working closely with their counterparts in Cologne to determine whether crimes in the two cities might be connected.
Cologne police have faced criticism for their response to the New Year’s Eve assaults, the scale of which emerged only slowly. On Jan. 1, they issued a statement saying that the celebrations had been “largely peaceful.”
Mayor Henriette Reker said she expected police to analyze what went wrong and “draw consequences from that.”
She didn’t elaborate on what that would entail. Police chief Wolfgang Albers has shrugged off questions about his own future, saying that he will stay in his post.
Reker herself was mocked on social media for saying, when asked about what women can do to protect themselves better: “There is always the possibility of keeping a certain distance, more than an arm’s length” from strangers.
Some of those who criticized her felt that Reker was blaming women for the attacks and lambasted the idea that women could have simply protected themselves by keeping men at arm’s length.
Reker said that she regretted any misunderstanding, but had merely been pointing to existing prevention and counseling programs in response to a journalist’s question.
“The priority is for concrete security to be provided on our streets and squares,” she said in a statement.
Authorities have cautioned that the nationality and residency status of the Cologne suspects is still unknown, since no one has been arrested.
Germany’s top security official stressed that those involved must be punished regardless of where they come from. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said that “you cannot draw a general suspicion against refugees from the indications that they were perhaps people who looked North African.”
He added that “a bit of patience is necessary to clear up as completely as possible the structure of the perpetrators and the organizational structures there might have been,” including whether there was any link to similar, smaller-scale incidents on New Year’s Eve in Hamburg.