Around 60 complaints have been made to the police in Cologne after a group of men attacked revellers in the city centre in a brutal and “completely unheard of” way, Wolfgang Albers, Chief of Police in the Rhineland city said at a press conference on Monday afternoon.
Around a third of the complaints were of sexual assault, regional paper Express reported.
“There was a very large number of sexual assaults there - and in a massive way. Women were grabbed and attacked,” said Albers, adding that in one case the alleged crime fitted the legal definition of rape.
“The crimes were committed by a group of people who from appearance were largely from the north African or Arab world,” the police chief added.
But the police have also insisted that many of the men had been known to them for some time and that they were not a group of newly-arrived refugees.
A group of around 500 men between the ages of 15 and 35 assembled at the central train station and in the area of the cathedral before throwing firecrackers into the masses of people celebrating the arrival of the new year.
This appears to have been a means of causing distraction, as during the disturbance groups of young men entered the crowd where they sexually assaulted women and pick-pocketed revellers.
Police then carried out a large-scale operation to clear the area of the miscreants, involving 143 local police officers and a further 70 federal officers. But due to the darkness and the sheer scale of people, Albers conceded that this operation was less than effective.
On Sunday police arrested five men at the central station who were accused of threatening and robbing female travellers. It is not yet clear whether these men are connected to the earlier crimes.
Cologne mayor Henriette Reker called for a crisis meeting to be held on Tuesday in the wake of the attacks, reports the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
“We can't let it happen that an area beyond the law develops here,” she said.
Accusations of cover-up
As the extent of the crimes emerged on Monday, the story became the central theme of Twitter with #Köln and #aufschrei (outcry) both ranking in the top five hashtags.
Many people accused the national media of engaging in a cover-up due to the ethnic background of the criminals, with many pointing to the fact that it took days before the details of the story reached national attention.
One commentator wrote sarcastically that “it is fascinating that the event in Cologne on New Year made it through the media censorship.”
Another person tweeted that “the public broadcasters aren't reporting the events of Cologne… Says it all - educational mission and all that!”
Other Twitter users worried that the attacks would lead to a backlash against refugees, writing “it makes me sad that the refugees who really need protection will bear the brunt of the hatred because of Cologne. We need to be able to tell the difference.”
Es macht mich traurig, dass die wirklich schützenswerten Flüchtlinge Hass abkriegen werden wegen #Köln. Man muss differenzieren können.— FrauleinGermanAngst (@WildEastBerlin) January 4, 2016
MP Steffan Bilger from Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, meanwhile, claimed the events in Cologne were proof Germany needed to reduce its intake of refugees.
“It can't go on like this,” he tweeted. “Urgently needed: reduction of influx, secure borders, intensifying of deportations and meaningful justice.”
So darfs nicht weitergehen! Dringend nötig: Zuzug reduzieren, Grenzen sichern, Abschiebungen intensivieren, konsequentere Justiz. #Köln— Steffen Bilger (@SteffenBilger) January 4, 2016
Writing for the Huffington Post Deutschland, Anabel Schunke accused the police of covering up details about the suspected criminals in order to protect public order.
Questioning why no details were given on the appearance of the suspects when police called for witnesses, despite plentiful CCTV footage, Schunke suggested that police chose to leave important details out so that the public would not make a connection between the crime and refugees.
In its details, the case is reminiscent of the mass sexual assaults which took place in north Africa during the huge Arab Spring protests of 2011-2013, Schunke points out, writing of her concern that so many people are moving to Germany from “patriarchal, Muslim societies.”