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Asylum seekers suspected in rash of New Year's Eve assaults in Europe

The broadening allegations was rapidly blowing into a full blown crisis that on Friday engulfed Cologne’s police chief Wolfgang Albers, who was suspended due to “lost trust” in his force following the New Year’s Eve attacks. The mounting scandal, meanwhile, was quickly deepening a strain of public outrage, prompting calls for new steps and threatening to ignite a new wave of anti-refugee sentiment in Europe.

Thus far, reports of violence and criminality tied to asylum seekers or refugees have emerged from Helsinki; Kalmar, Sweden; Hamburg and Stuttgart. No single city was hit harder than Cologne — where gangs of mostly young men are alleged to have “hunted” women, corraling them before groping, assaulting and robbing them. So far, at least 170 victims have filed complaints, including 120 reports of sexual assault.

Two suspects — aged 16 and 23 and of North African origin — were arrested early Friday but were later released due to lack of evidence, according to authorities in Cologne.

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

Out of the 34, 21 were asylum seekers — and the majority of those, police said, had arrived last year. The 34 suspects included 10 Algerians, 10 Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, two Germans, one American, one Serbian and one Iraqi.

The spokesman, who spoke under a customary policy of anonymity, said overwhelmed Cologne police took down the suspects’ names and other data on New Year’s Eve, but they were not detained or immediately questioned due to 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 spokesman said. “We are working at absolute high speed and are asking the people to trust us.” The investigations were moving relatively slowly, he said, because it took awhile for some the victims of sexual assault to gather the courage to speak out.

In response to the growing number of allegations, a steady stream of voices are now calling for tougher action in a region facing a historic influx of asylum seekers and migrants from war-torn regions and pockets of poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Leaders of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union on Friday said they would consider a bevy of new measures this weekend, including a policy to deport any migrants with criminal backgrounds and the introduction of random identification checks. 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,” that country’s prime minister, Robert Fico, told reporters.

National anger is mounting even as authorities accused of reacting too slowly to the scope of the incidents are now in the midst of conducting broad sweeps for suspects.

Police stopped the men near the city’s central station shortly after midnight, and found videos on their smartphones showing what appeared to be scenes of New Year’s Eve assaults against women. They reportedly also had notes in their possession with German translations of sexually explicit and threatening phrases, including “I will kill you,” according to the German news outlet Focus.

German media pundits and social media users on Twitter and Facebook have accused the Cologne police of covering up both the extent of the New Year’s Eve assaults as well as its links to asylum seekers and refugees. In a statement before his suspension, Albers rejected those allegations.

“As long as the police cannot accuse a person of a crime based on facts, the presumption of innocence applies in Germany,” he said. He added, “To accuse me of covering up the origin of suspects therefore is completely absurd.”

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

Police in Helsinki, Finland, said that 15 Iraqi asylum seekers were taken into custody on similar charges of groping and harassing women near the city’s central railway station on New Year’s Eve. Ilkka Koskimäki, deputy police chief of the Helsinki police department, said three women had filed complaints, alleging they had been kissed and touched against their will.

The situation, Koskimäki said, might have been worse had police not received a tip that groups of asylum seekers were planning disturbances that night, leading the Helsinki police to deploy their largest contingency of New Year’s officers on the streets in 15 years.

The situation, Koskimäki said, did not spiral out of control only “because we had so much manpower in the city center.”

In another incident, police in the southwestern city of Weil am Rhein took three Syrian nationals into custody and were looking for a fourth in connection to an alleged gang rape of two girls, aged 14 and 15.

The suspects included a 20-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, were 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 had started as a consensual encounter became rape, authorities said in a statement.

© 2016, The Washington Post

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