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Police seek suspects in Cologne NYE sexual assaults
01:55 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Fallout continues in Germany from apparently coordinated attacks on women

More than 100 sex assaults and muggings were reported in Cologne on New Year's Eve

The victims said the assailants were gangs of men who appeared to be Arab or North African

Berlin CNN  — 

Cologne’s mayor has come under fire for advising women to stay “an arm’s length” from male strangers after alleged sexual assaults and muggings during New Year’s Eve festivities in the German city.

Germany has been shocked by the apparently coordinated crime wave, in which Cologne police received more than 100 criminal complaints from women who said they had been sexually assaulted or robbed by gangs of men of Arab or North African appearance in the city center during New Year’s Eve festivities. Cologne police would not elaborate Wednesday on the total number of crimes reported, as the figure continued to rise.

Police have said that about a quarter of the complaints related to sexual assaults, including a rape, and that they believed the assaults were probably intended to distract the victims, allowing attackers to steal mobile phones and other devices.

Three suspects had been identified and were being questioned, a police representative told CNN. Police were working through a large amount of cellphone footage from the evening to identify further suspects.

Similar attacks were reported in Hamburg on New Year’s Eve, with 39 reported sexual assaults and 14 robberies, according to police in the city, while police in Stuttgart said two women had reported their phones were missing after they were assaulted by a group of men of Arab appearance during New Year’s festivities there.

Read more: Reports of New Year’s Eve sex assaults in Cologne fuel German migrant debate

Mayor’s comments slammed

The crimes, which an outraged German Chancellor Angela Merkel labeled “disgusting” and Cologne’s police chief described as offenses “of a totally new dimension,” have sparked a firestorm in Germany.

A police car passes the central railway station in Cologne, Germany near where a series of sex assaults allegedly occurred on New Year's Eve.

The episode has prompted angry protests, fueled public debate about Germany’s welcoming stance to migrants and unleashed a wave of anger at authorities and the media for their perceived reticence in addressing the crimes, out of a misplaced sense of political correctness.

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker appeared to pour oil on the fire with her remarks at a news conference Tuesday, at which she addressed the New Year’s crimes and discussed plans to issue guidelines for behavior during Cologne’s famous Carnival next month, when hundreds of thousands of revelers are expected on the city’s streets.

When asked how women could protect themselves, she suggested keeping “a certain distance of more than an arm’s length” from unknown men.

She reiterated her advice at an appearance on German public service broadcaster ZDF’s “Heute Journal” program Tuesday, when she said: “Women would also be smart not to go and embrace everyone that you meet and who seems to be nice. Such offers could be misunderstood, and that is something every woman and every girl should protect herself from.”

‘An arm’s length’

Her comments were met with derision on social media, with the hashtag #einearmlaenge (“an arm’s length”) circulating to mock her suggestion for appearing to place responsibility for the attacks on the victims.

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas addresses the assaults in Cologne.

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas was also critical of the comments, tweeting: “I don’t think much of the how-to-behave tips for women such as #anarm’slength. It is not women who are responsible, but the perpetrators.”

Reker later issued a statement in response to the criticism, saying that media coverage had given the impression that her prevention initiatives were limited to behavior tips for women, which was not the case.

She had also explained at the news conference Tuesday the need “to explain to people from other cultures that the jolly and frisky attitude during our Carnival is not a sign of sexual openness.”

Broadcaster: ‘It was our failure’