German police have identified three suspects in connection with mass attacks on women at New Year celebrations in the city of Cologne, the interior minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia said on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, police announced that 90 women had been sexually molested, robbed, or threatened outside the city's central cathedral, a series of events they condemned as a "new dimension in crime."
Police chief Wolfgang Albers told reporters that assaults were committed by perpetrators from a group which contained as many as 1,000 men who appeared to be between 18 and 35 years old and mainly from "the Arab or North African region."
"We have one complaint that represents a rape," he added.
The attacks have also exacerbated tensions between recently arrived refugees and migrants, and anti-immigration campaigners; Germany took in one million migrants last year.
The women who were targeted have begun to come forward publicly. An 18-year-old called Michelle told Germany's N-TV news network that her and her 11 friends had been harassed, groped, and robbed on New Year's Eve.
"At around 11pm we were at the main train station and wanted to travel on to see the fireworks and that was when we first noticed all these men standing around," she said.
"We managed to go into the cathedral and wanted to go past the Museum Ludwig to join everyone and watch the fireworks by the river, but suddenly we were surrounded by a group of between 20 and 30 men."
"'They were full of anger, and we had to make sure that none of us were pulled away by them. They were groping us and we were trying to get away as quickly as possible"
A 27-year-old woman called Anne told Spiegel Online: "The entire square was full of almost exclusively men with just a few fearful women among them being stared at. I can hardly describe it. I felt very uncomfortable." She said she was groped soon after arriving.
Another woman identified as Katja, said: "When we came out of the station, we were very surprised by the group we met, which was made up only of foreign men… We walked through the group of men, there was a tunnel through them, we walked through… I was groped everywhere... Although we shouted and hit them, they men didn't stop. I was horrified and I think I was touched around 100 times over the 200 meters."
The area the women were in normally attracts thousand of revelers on New Year's Eve.
"We will not tolerate such cowardly and abhorrent attacks," German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said on Tuesday. "This is apparently an entirely new dimension of organized crime." He said everyone involved must be "identified and made accountable."
Ralf Jaeger, interior minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said: "We will not tolerate organized groups of men from North Africa that debase defenseless women with brazen sexual attacks," and added: "We owe that to women as well as to those North African refugees who want to live peacefully among us."
Meanwhile, Germany's integration commissioner, Aydan Ozoguz, demanded a rapid investigation, "because on the one hand, the women need clarity and on the other, refugees and foreigners are quickly becoming the focus of broad suspicion."
Cologne mayor Henriette Reker said there was no reason to believe the perpetrators of the attacks were refugees, though what happened was "unbelievable and intolerable."
Reker has faced criticism after suggesting at a crisis meeting on Wednesday that women should follow a "code of conduct" that includes suggestions such as staying an arm's length distance from strangers, asking bystanders for help, reporting assaults to the police, and staying within a group.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also condemned the attacks, telling Reker in a phone call the attacks deserved a tough response.
"Everything must be done to investigate those responsible as quickly and completely as possible and punish them, regardless of where they are from," she said, according to her spokesman.
After a crisis meeting, Reker announced new steps would be taken to avoid a repeat, including increasing police numbers at big events and installing more security cameras.
She stressed that women must feel safe at traditional carnival celebrations next month when the city closes down for five days of drunken street parades and parties.
Reker herself was stabbed in the neck and seriously hurt in October, just one day before she was elected mayor. Police said that the attack appeared to be motivated by her support for refugees.
On Tuesday evening, around 150 people gathered in front of Cologne's cathedral to protest against violence against women. One of them held a sign saying: "Ms. Merkel where are you? What do you say? This scares us!"
The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has gained in polls in part at Merkel's expense thanks to a campaign against refugees, said she should close the border.
"Mrs. Merkel, is Germany 'colorful and cosmopolitan' enough for you after the wave of crimes and sexual attacks?" tweeted AfD chief Frauke Petry.
Meanwhile, there are almost daily attacks on refugee shelters across Germany. "Events like that in Cologne foster xenophobia," said Roland Schaefer, head of Germany's association of towns and localities.
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