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Germans questioning migrant welcome in wake of New Year’s Eve chaos

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By Matthew Schofield

McClatchy Foreign Staff

(TNS)

BERLIN — The tales coming out of German cities about what happened New Year’s Eve keep getting worse.

First there was Cologne, where as many as 1,000 men thought to be between 18 and 35 years old descended on a central square, breaking into packs of 30 or more that reportedly surrounded, molested and robbed hundreds of women. Two rapes were reported.

Now, similar smaller-scale attacks are being reported in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Dusseldorf.

The reports get at a number of political issues raging in Germany, with the most worrying question being whether the attackers were bands of recently arrived refugees.

Already, critics of Germany’s open-door refugee policy are using the events as evidence that what’s known here as the “welcoming culture” has failed. The criticism has focused on the notion that many of the 1.1 million refugees Germany has taken in — overwhelmingly young and male — come from cultures that lack respect for women.

Witnesses described the culprits as looking to be northern African or Arab, but officials have been careful not to brand the culprits by national origin or to say they were recent arrivals. Experts noted that the attackers’ tactics have been used for years by groups of organized pickpockets.

But on Thursday, police in Cologne, whose initial reports of New Year’s Eve indicated nothing out of the ordinary, acknowledged they had identified “16 young men who might be responsible for crimes in and around Cologne central train station on New Year’s Eve.” The report noted that most of the men were North African but that investigators have yet to “prove with concrete evidence” that the suspects were involved.

That finding and the apparently widespread nature of the attacks threw a wrench into what had been German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s push for her country and the rest of Europe to welcome the hundreds of thousands of migrants from Syria and elsewhere that have flooded the continent during the past months’ refugee crisis.

Just before she met with the prime minister of Romania on Thursday, Merkel said she did not think the New Year’s Eve events were isolated cases and that they must be dealt with swiftly and firmly, including deporting the perpetrators. She said she feared that the incidents showed contempt for women.

“We have to send out clear signals to those who are not willing to observe our laws,” she said. She added that would include “checking whether everything that must be done has been done regarding the possibility of deportation from Germany.”

Under German law, any resident without a German passport can be deported for cause.

Earlier Merkel had issued a statement condemning the “disgusting assaults and sexual attacks.”

The minister of justice, Heiko Maas, said the attacks revealed “a completely new dimension of organized crime” in Germany.

The events also raised questions about Germany’s underfunded and often ineffectual police force, which appears to have turned its back as the chaos began and is accused of then trying to cover up the attacks.

The chaos also raised concerns about what will happen next. New Year’s Eve is a cherished and fairly wild affair in Germany. Celebrants typically wander the streets drinking, and the volume and strength of fireworks being detonated on every corner can make the Fourth of July in the United States seem remarkably tame.

But New Year’s Eve is nothing compared with what is coming, especially in Cologne, and to a lesser extent Dusseldorf. The Cologne Carnival, the German version of Mardi Gras, begins in February and is known as a weeklong costumed street festival featuring massive crowds and heavy drinking.

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker, who was elected last year after being stabbed by a man voicing anti-refugee views, urged caution before passing judgment on who was involved in the attacks.

“There’s no evidence that we’re dealing here with people who are refugees,” she said. She added that calling the attackers refugees at this point was “absolutely impermissible.”

The statement, however, came after she’d uttered what became a controversial initial reaction to the attacks, advising victims that “there’s always a chance to keep a certain distance, by avoiding large crowds and keeping unfamiliar people at arm’s length.”

Certainly, in the United States, the attacks and the so-far-unsubstantiated allegation that they were perpetrated by recent arrivals is likely to animate those who oppose the Obama administration’s plan to welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose campaign has opposed allowing in refugees, raised the issue on Twitter. “Germany is going through massive attacks to its people by the migrants allowed to enter the country,” he wrote. “New Years Eve was a disaster. THINK!”

German officials aren’t so sure who is to blame. One problem is the slowness of the police response. A week after the attacks, there hasn’t been a single arrest.

Witnesses and victims have given a highly critical assessment of the police reaction to the mayhem in Cologne. At one point during the evening’s events, police cleared the square where 1,000 men had descended but then left the area, according to witnesses and victims, and the men returned.

The initial police reports show little sense that anything out of the ordinary had happened.

“A joyful, party atmosphere,” read one, filed the morning of Jan. 1. “As in years past, we are looking back at a mostly peaceful New Year’s celebration. Reasons to intervene were mostly physical assault and disturbance of the peace.”

The number of assaults rose from 78 last New Year’s to 80 this year, the report said, noting that police had issued two “orders to disperse” to 94 people in the square. “In order to avoid a mass panic from firing of fireworks by 1,000 partiers, police temporarily cleared the square. Despite this unplanned interruption, the situation remained relaxed,” the report said.

That version, however, ran counter to the tales since of women who report they were stripped of their dresses, underwear and purses and, begging police for help, were told “to keep a good grip on your champagne bottle to use as a weapon of defense.”

Other attack victims claimed that police told them they were too busy with traffic control to help. Accounts of assaults and police inaction filled social media.

One man on Facebook referred to assistance he claimed to have given to help resettle refugees when he recounted how, despite holding his girlfriend’s hand as they walked from Cologne’s train station across the square, she was subjected to “men groping her, even under her dress. I looked at this and wondered if this is what we got when I donated half of my closet.”

Other accounts said the apparently unarmed assailants threw fireworks at police officers throughout the evening. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel quoted one unnamed federal police official as saying the police were “outnumbered and insufficiently equipped. The situation was chaotic and embarrassing.”

On Tuesday, Cologne police issued a revised report, acknowledging the extent of the chaos. Then on Thursday came another report, noting the 16 suspects. It said 80 officers were now investigating 121 cases, most of which involved sexual assault and theft.

The new report asked any other victims to come forward, and for any video footage from the night taken by passers-by.

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©2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

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Germans questioning migrant welcome in wake of New Year’s Eve chaos