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Sexual assaults row leads to dismissal of police chief in Germany

Sexual assaults row leads to dismissal of police chief in Germany

BERLIN: Cologne's police chief was dismissed on Friday amid mounting criticism of his force's handling of a string of New Year's Eve sexual assaults and robberies.

Wolfgang Abers had faced mounting criticism for the police's handling of the alleged New Year's Eve attacks on women by groups of men who were part of a larger crowd of some 1,000 described as being of “Arab or North African origin.”

Police initially failed to mention the attacks around Cologne's main station in their report the following morning, describing the New Year festivities as “largely peaceful”.

Albers acknowledged the mistake earlier this week, but dismissed widespread criticism that officers were overwhelmed and reacted too slowly in protecting the women.

“When the situation became tense in front of the train station - there were a thousand men who were completely out of control - the police cleared the square,” he had told public broadcaster ARD. “It was a difficult operation and the police did an exemplary job.”

Witnesses, however, told a different story. German media quoted dozens of women who said they were followed by groups of men who groped them, tried to pull off their clothes and stole valuables.

Also read: Major report reveals 'extensive' abuse of women in EU

An internal police report also widely published in German media on Thursday indicated strongly that police were overwhelmed and described how women had to run through mobs of drunken men outside Cologne's main train station.

The state government of North Rhine-Westphalia on Friday said it was sending 60-year-old Wolfgang Albers into early retirement.

The state's interior minister, Ralf Jaeger, said the move was “necessary to restore public trust and the Cologne police's ability to act, with a view to upcoming major events.”

It is pertinent to mention that Cologne's annual carnival is next month, and the government is on its toes to ensure such a situation may not arise again.

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker suggested on Friday that police had held back information from her, including on where possible suspects in the crimes came from, and said in a statement that her “trust in the Cologne police leadership is significantly shaken.”

Albers rejected suggestions that police had deliberately withheld information.

However, he said after his removal that he understands Jaeger's decision. In a statement, Albers said that the events must be cleared up in detail and “the public debate surrounding me is liable to complicate and delay this work.”

Earlier on Friday, Germany's Interior Ministry said police have identified 18 asylum-seekers among 31 suspects in connection with the robberies and assaults.

They were detained by federal police on suspicion of committing crimes ranging from theft to assault, and in one case, verbal abuse of a sexual nature, Interior Ministry spokesman Tobias Plate told reporters in Berlin.

They were believed to be among the group of up to 1,000 people in front of Cologne's main railway station on Thursday evening.

None of the 31 is currently suspected of committing sexual assaults - the aspect of the Cologne assaults that has prompted outrage in Germany over the past week.

Plate said the suspects were nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, two Germans and one person each from Iraq, Serbia and the United States.

Cologne police said they have received a total of 170 criminal complaints related to New Year, including 120 of a sexual nature.

In addition to the 31 suspects detained by federal officers, city police arrested two men from North Africa, aged 16 and 23, early Friday.

Prosecutors said later that those two were released, citing a lack of evidence against them.

Also read: View from abroad: Growing European concerns about Muslim migrants

The incidents have triggered calls for tighter immigration laws, particularly from politicians opposed to Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy that allowed nearly 1.1 million refugees to enter the country last year.

Government spokesman Georg Streiter said the chancellor wants “the whole truth” about the events in Cologne and that “nothing should be held back and nothing should be glossed over.”

“It doesn't just harm our rule of law but also the great majority of completely innocent refugees who have sought protection” in Germany, he said.

Plate said authorities were investigating possible links to similar sexual assaults in other cities to see whether there had been any coordination.

Swedish police said Friday that at least 15 young women reported being groped by groups of men on New Year's Eve in the city of Kalmar.

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