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Robberies, sex assaults rock Germany on New Year's Eve
02:31 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Men behind mob sex attacks in Cologne, Germany, could face deportation, justice minister says

More than 121 criminal complaints have been filed relating to the assaults on New Year's Eve

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

Berlin CNN  — 

The perpetrators of mob sex attacks and muggings in the city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve could face deportation if they are migrants, Germany’s justice minister said Thursday.

Germany has been shocked by the apparently coordinated crime wave in the center of the city in western Germany on New Year’s Eve, in which scores of women reported being sexually assaulted or robbed by gangs of men of Arab or North African appearance.

Cologne police spokeswoman Stefanie Becker told CNN on Thursday that more than 121 criminal complaints have been filed relating to the mass assaults, including two accounts of rape, while 16 suspects have been identified but not charged.

Spiegel: ‘Run the gauntlet’

That night, police kept encountering women and girls in tears, German news organization Spiegel Online reported, citing an internal federal police report.

“Women in company or who were on their own had to run the gauntlet through an inebriated mass of men,” the police report read.

Groups of men prevented police from reaching people crying out for help, Spiegel Online said. Men molesting women threatened anyone who might try to identify them.

Similar attacks

Similar attacks were reported in other German cities on New Year’s Eve, with more than 50 similar incidents reported in the northern city of Hamburg.

The attacks have sparked outrage in Germany, prompting angry protests and fueling public debate about the wisdom of Germany’s welcoming stance to migrants.

Police have not confirmed to CNN whether the suspects identified so far are asylum seekers, and government officials have warned against scapegoating migrants.

But German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said Thursday that people found guilty could be deported if they were seeking asylum.

“The law allows for people to be deported during asylum proceedings if they’re sentenced to a year or more in prison, and that’s possible with sexual offenses,” he said.

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

Merkel: Situation is ‘intolerable’

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel continued her tough talk in Romania on Thursday, calling the situation “intolerable” and saying her government would look to send a “clear sign” for those not willing to respect German law.

A woman holds a sign during a demonstration in Cologne after a wave of attacks on women over New Year's Eve.

“Of course after what happened, there are several very serious questions which go beyond Cologne. Are there connections or collective patterns? Are there elements of condemnation of women?” she said.

“We must vehemently work against that. I don’t think these are single cases. People have a right, and we as a state institution have the obligation to give the right answers to this.”

Merkel has faced tough criticism after the attacks, a result of her decision to have Germany take in the bulk of the migrant influx that has created a crisis on Europe’s borders. Many Germans have expressed opposition to the sudden arrival of so many, predominantly Muslim, migrants, questioning their ability to adapt to a European way of life.

Germany’s anti-migrant protest: ‘We don’t want to be strangers in our own country’

Significant fallout

But many other sectors of the German establishment have weathered the blowback from the attacks.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere slammed the Cologne police forces’ handling of the incident.

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker was savaged by social media users and criticized by Justice Minister Maas when she suggested that women could try keeping “more than an arm’s length” from unknown men to avoid such attacks.

Cologne mayor Henriette Reker.

She later complained that her remarks had been taken out of context and said her tips for preventing a repeat of such an incident would involve educating men about appropriate behavior. Reker was stabbed in the neck in October by a man angry about Germany’s migration policies.

And German broadcaster ZDF was forced to issue an apology Tuesday for failing to report on the attacks in a timely fashion.

Critics alleged authorities and the media were slow to acknowledge the attacks because of political sensitivities concerning the alleged ethnic backgrounds of the assailants.

Read more: Cologne mayor slammed for “arm’s length” advice

‘They touched us everywhere’

Victims of the assaults in Cologne said this week that they feared being killed or raped by the attackers. One woman said she was too scared to go out alone after the ordeal.

“The men surrounded us and started to grab our behinds and touch our crotches,” she said.

“They touched us everywhere. I wanted to take my friend and leave. I turned around, and in that moment, someone grabbed my bag.”

Europe’s migration crisis

CNN’s Lindsay Isaac contributed to this report.