After German chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to crack down on refugees who commit crimes, both refugee advocates and opponents took to the streets on Saturday, Jan. 9, in Cologne. Some protesters turned violent. (The Washington Post)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pledging to crack down on refugees who commit crimes, with her party agreeing to present stricter deportation laws to Parliament following a national outcry over a string of New Year’s Eve assaults, including a protest that turned violent Saturday in Cologne.

Merkel has taken one of the most welcoming stances in Europe toward desperate refugees fleeing the war-torn Middle East, but she has come under pressure to take a harder line following the spate of attacks and sexual assaults in Cologne and other German cities by dozens of suspects that include refugees and asylum seekers. In response, her center-right Christian Democratic Union on Saturday approved a plan, which will be presented to her coalition partners and Parliament, that could see newcomers who break the law ejected from the country.

An initial draft floated on Friday saw the party taking aim at only those who commit serious crimes carrying jail time. But the party line was hardened Saturday: Even refugees sentenced to probation by German courts could face deportation. In addition, the party called for new random identity checks of refugees and asylum seekers and tougher sexual-assault laws.

Merkel’s party’s moves came as protesters — both refu­gee advocates and opponents — took to the streets on Saturday in Cologne, where police deployed about 1,700 officers to keep the peace. Police said they were forced to intervene to separate the groups.

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])

The demonstrations turned violent in the late afternoon, local media reported, when protesters of the anti-Islamic Pegida group hurled rocks, bottles and fireworks at the officers, who reacted by using a water cannon to disperse the crowd.

A flash mob of 1,000 people demonstrating against sexism also took to the steps the famous gothic Cologne Cathedral.

The protests came a day after federal police said that at least 21 of 34 suspects in the New Year’s Eve assaults in Cologne are believed to be asylum seekers.

Of the 379 complaints registered so far, 40 percent involve sexual assault, German authorities say.

On Saturday, Merkel denounced “the abominably criminal acts” that occurred on New Year’s Eve, adding that they called for “decisive answers.” A toughening of laws, Merkel said, would not only benefit Germans, but also law-abiding refugees.

“When does one forfeit one’s right to hospitality here?” Merkel said on Friday. “I simply must say, yes, one does forfeit one’s right for hospitality sooner” if he or she breaks the law.

Merkel also reiterated her earlier pledge to “reduce” the overall number of migrants — Germany saw more than 1.1 million newcomers arrive last year, far more than any other nation in Europe — but she did not offer a new plan.

Merkel has previously called on other European countries to do more to share the migrant burden, but she is also pressing Turkey to do more to stem the flow of asylum seekers through that nation en route to Europe. In general, however, Merkel appeared to uphold her position that Germany should still accept those newcomers with a genuine and legal right to apply for asylum.

Reports of New Year’s Eve assaults have also now emerged from Helsinki; Kalmar, Sweden; and two other German cities, Hamburg and Stuttgart. The worst incidents happened in Cologne, where victims have said they were encircled by groups of young men.

In a separate case, four Syrian males, ages 14 to 21, were detained in connection to an alleged New Year’s Eve gang rape of two teenage girls in the southwestern German town of Weil am Rhein.

Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.

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