Police secure the Schlossplatz square on New Year's Eve in Stuttgart, Germany . A wave of sexual attacks in Cologne and other European cities that night has inflamed ongoing debate about migrants. (Max Kovalenko/Lichtgut/European Pressphoto Agency)

At least 21 asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa are suspects in the New Year’s Eve rampage of sexual assaults and thefts in the German city of Cologne, authorities said, as word emerged of similar acts in Finland and Sweden as well as other German cities — including the alleged gang rape of two teenage girls by four Syrian men.

Officials said it was not clear whether the attacks had been coordinated. But the broadening allegations were rapidly escalating into a full-blown crisis that on Friday engulfed Cologne’s police chief, Wolfgang Albers, who was suspended because of “lost trust” in his force. The mounting scandal, meanwhile, was quickly deepening public outrage, prompting calls for tighter controls on newcomers while threatening to ignite a new wave of anti-refugee sentiment in Europe.

Already, several European nations including France, Sweden and Denmark have moved to significantly tighten border controls, aiming to root out terror suspects and stanch the flow of new arrivals. Yet concerns that some of the newcomers could pose another kind of security threat — as common criminals — have been brewing for months and are now surging to the forefront.

Thus far, reports of New Year’s Eve assaults have emerged from Helsinki; Kalmar, Sweden; as well as two other German cities, Hamburg and Stuttgart. No city was hit harder than Cologne, where gangs of mostly young men are alleged to have “hunted” women, corralling them before groping, assaulting and robbing them. So far, at least 170 people have filed complaints, including 120 for sexual assault.

Protesters marched through the central train station in Cologne, Germany, to call for an end to violence against women after dozens of attacks shook the city on New Year’s Eve. (Facebook/Rote Antifa [Essen])

In Germany, a record 1.1 million asylum seekers and economic migrants arrived last year. Their numbers slowed as winter set in, but a surge is expected again by spring. Chancellor Angela Merkel has resisted calls to follow other European nations by tightening border controls and limiting entries. But in the wake of the New Year’s Eve attacks, she is facing mounting pressure to act.

The incidents have sparked outrage on social media and are giving new strength to critics who insist Germany is staring down the barrel of a culture clash between the newcomers and Western norms.

“The extent of the contempt and assaults by Arab men, who see women as fair game because they do not dress according to the expectations of their cultural group, is hair-raising,” Julia Klöckner, deputy chairwoman of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, told the Rheinische Post newspaper Friday.

The Cologne police have been the target of significant public anger for being slow both to respond to the attacks and to inform the nation about their scope. Two suspects — ages 16 and 23 and of North African origin — were arrested early Friday but were later released because of a lack of evidence, according to authorities in Cologne.

A spokesman for the German federal police, however, said that at least 34 suspects have been identified in the Cologne attacks and that authorities are still seeking evidence from witnesses to pursue arrests.

Out of the 34 suspects, 21 were asylum seekers — and the majority of those, the spokesman said, arrived this past year. The 34 reportedly include 10 Algerians, 10 Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, two Germans, one American, one Serbian and one Iraqi.

The police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with customary policy, said overwhelmed Cologne police did not detain or immediately question the 34 suspects because of the unfolding scenes of chaos. Authorities, he said, were currently questioning victims and evaluating videos from the night of the assaults.

“There will be arrests when there is enough evidence for a judge to issue an arrest warrant,” the official said. “We are working at absolute high speed and are asking the people to trust us.”

Still, the investigations were moving relatively slowly, he said, because it took time for some of the victims of sexual assault to gather the courage to speak out.

On Friday, leaders of Merkel’s CDU party said they would consider a set of new measures this weekend. These include a new policy to deport any asylum seekers given jail time for crimes committed in Germany as well as the introduction of random identification checks.

The New Year’s Eve incidents have stoked opposition elsewhere, too. On Thursday, Slovakia reiterated its stance that it would seek to block “immigration from Muslim countries.”

“We don’t want something like what happened in Germany taking place in Slovakia,” the country’s prime minister, Robert Fico, told reporters.

Refugee advocates, meanwhile, said they feared the attacks were feeding a growing sense of paranoia. “I am concerned about the atmosphere in” Germany, said Stefan Kessler, legal and policy officer at the Jesuit Refugee Service. “There is the danger that already existing prejudice against young men from North Africa will intensify.”

National anger, however, is mounting. German pundits and social-media users have accused the Cologne police of covering up both the extent of the New Year’s Eve assaults and the violence’s links to asylum seekers and refugees. In a statement before his suspension, Albers rejected those allegations.

Information on the Cologne suspects emerged even as 15 women in Kalmar filed complaints of being encircled, groped and assaulted. So far, two men, both asylum seekers, have been arrested in that case, according to the Associated Press.

In another incident, police in the southwestern German city of Weil am Rhein took four Syrian nationals into custody in connection with an alleged gang rape of two girls, ages 14 and 15.

The suspects in that case include a 21-year-old Syrian refugee and his 15-year-old brother, who is in the process of seeking asylum. The status of the other two, both 14, was not disclosed, but they were said to be residents of the Netherlands and Switzerland. At least some of the men, police said, had known the girls, who apparently went willingly to the apartment of the eldest Syrian. But the girls told police that what began as a consensual encounter became rape, authorities said in a statement.

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