Justice minister Heiko Maas says violent and sexual attacks in Cologne blamed on foreigners could have been coordinated with others in Hamburg and elsewhere
Photo: A demonstrator at Cologne railway station carries a sign that reads: ‘I want to move freely – without fear, without prejudices’. Photograph: Maja Hitij/EPA
Sunday 10 January 2016 17.58 GMT
Last modified on Monday 11 January 2016 00.40 GMT
German authorities need to find out urgently whether the New Year’s Eve attacks across the country were linked to more than 500 mob assaults in Cologne that have largely been blamed on foreigners, including asylum seekers, the country’s justice minister has said.
There has been uproar in Germany since news of the attacks and the origins of some suspects emerged, days after the violence took place. It has been seized on by opponents of chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy across the political spectrum.
’I’ve never experienced anything like that’: Cologne in deep shock over attacks
Merkel has already made concessions, backing away for the first time from her “we will manage this” mantra to promise that any asylum seeker sentenced to jail will be deported. She vowed to reduce the numbers of refugees taken in next year, although she has not said how or set any limits.
The anti-immigrant group Pegida held a rally in Cologne on Saturday that police estimated drew 1,700 people, including first-time supporters. Similar numbers gathered at two other demonstrations nearby, one an anti-fascist rally and the other protesting against sexual harassment.
The organiser of the far-right meeting warned participants against bringing knives or alcohol before the first speaker took the stage, but the meeting descended at one point into violence with injuries to at least two people before police used water cannon to bring the crowd under control.
‘Nobody can tell me that this was not coordinated or prepared,’ said German justice minister Heiko Maas.
‘Nobody can tell me that this was not coordinated or prepared,’ said German justice minister Heiko Maas. Photograph: Britta Pedersen/EPA
Former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson was among the speakers, criticising the “UK media” for labelling the crowd far-right, before telling them, to frenzied applause, that Islam was “a cancer”.
Many speeches were targeted at Merkel, one of the most powerful advocates for the new arrivals, and seen by critics and admirers as the architect of a German policy in which the country welcomed around 1.1 million asylum seekers last year.
Cologne may represent a turning point for Merkel herself. She has adopted a harsher tone since details of the attacks, police failures and media self-censorship began seeping out, days after the assaults themselves. “We must speak again about the cultural fundamentals of our co-existence,” she was quoted as saying by Agence France Press.
The attackers were among around 1,000 people, mostly men, gathered at Cologne’s central station who broke into smaller groups to grope and rob women. Police have said they are now looking into more than 500 crimes, AFP reported.
So far, of 31 suspects detained by police for questioning, 18 were asylum seekers, but there were also two Germans, an American and others, and none of them were accused specifically of committing sexual assaults.
“If such a horde gathers in order to commit crimes, that appears in some form to be planned,” the justice minister, Heiko Maas, told Bild, the Associate Press reported. “Nobody can tell me that this was not coordinated or prepared.”
Police in Hamburg are also investigating sexual assaults and thefts in the St Pauli district, similar to those in Cologne but on a smaller scale. Authorities in Sweden and Finland are also investigating similar incidents in their countries.
“All connections must be carefully checked,” Maas said. “There is a suspicion that a particular date was chosen with expected crowds. That would then be a new dimension.”
Germany’s welcome for refugees has to survive the Cologne attacks
Some Syrian refugees say they would welcome stricter checks on new arrivals. “There are so many people now from other countries buying fake papers, fake passports and pretending to be Syrian. They are taking advantage of Germany and making it harder for us who really need safety,” said one woman who recently arrived in the country.
Germany’s crisis is likely to deepen before it is resolved. Refugees are still arriving in large numbers, despite winter making the journey more dangerous and difficult, and no other European country has shown much intention of responding to its call to do more.
Western European countries with welcoming policies such as Sweden are warning that they are struggling to cope and many leaders in former eastern bloc countries are taking an even harsher tone. The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, in December called the current refugee influx to Europe “an organised invasion”.