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Sexual assaults blamed on ‘Arab’ men in Germany may inflame refugee debate

People walk past the main train station in Cologne, Germany. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

New Year's Eve attacks attributed to Arab and North African men threaten to fan the flames of Germany's refugee debate.

The wave of violence overnight on Thursday resulted in dozens of reports of sexual assault and robberies around the city's main train station, where a crowd of about 1,000 men had congregated, police said, according to Spiegel online.

"We will not tolerate such cowardly and abhorrent attacks," German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said Tuesday. "This is apparently an entirely new dimension of organized crime."

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More than 90 criminal complaints were filed. About a quarter of them cited sexual harassment or groping, including at least one rape, according to the BBC. Most others alleged theft, Cologne Police Chief Wolfgang Albers said at a news conference on Monday night. Small groups of men would emerge from the larger crowd to surround, harass and sometimes steal from women, Albers said.

The crimes were committed by men "who from appearance were largely from the North African or Arab world,” he said, according to the Local. Police said they were previously aware of many of the men in the crowd and while officials said the crowd did not include any recently arrived refugees, at least one unnamed officer told the BBC he detained several asylum-seeking suspects. Similar attacks were reported in Hamburg and Stuttgart, according to the BBC.

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Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker described the attacks as "outrageous" and called an emergency meeting of city officials, according to the Telegraph.

"We cannot tolerate a legal vacuum here,” said Reker, who was elected in October while hospitalized after an opponent of her pro-refugee policies stabbed her in the neck.

Officials throughout Germany walked a fine line in comments about the incidents, in an apparent attempt to distance the acts of a few from any entire group.

“In criminal law, what’s important is proving a crime, and everyone is equal before the law,” Maas said. “It doesn’t matter where someone comes from, it matters what they did and that we can prove it.”

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But others were more direct.

"We will not tolerate organized groups of men from North Africa that debase defenseless women with brazen sexual attacks," said Ralf Jäger, interior minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, according to Spiegel. "We owe that to women as well as to those North African refugees who want to live peacefully among us."

Germany has been inundated in recent months by refugees from the conflicts in Middle East and North Africa. It has strained to accommodate and integrate the record number of refugees, leading to calls for tighter control of its borders.

“It can’t go on like this,” Steffen Bilger, a politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, tweeted, according the Local's translation. “Urgently needed: reduction of influx, secure borders, intensifying of deportations and meaningful justice. #Cologne.”

Officials say it will probably take time to bring the perpetrators of the New Year's Eve attacks to justice, given the sheer size of the crowd, the time at which the wave of violence occurred, and the foggy memories of witnesses, Spiegel reported.

For now, investigators are focusing on a small group of men from North Africa who have committed small-time robberies in the past.

This post was updated at 8:30 p.m.

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