Refugees were among a mob of heavily intoxicated men who committed mass sexual assault and theft in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, police union members told German media Friday, directly contradicting information previously released by police.
In another development, Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers was forced to step down in response to criticism over his force’s handling of the cases.
Ralf Jaeger, the interior minister of the state of North Rhine Westphalia, where Cologne is located, said he asked Albers to leave.
Albers came under fire after it emerged that his officers had been short-staffed and ill-equipped to curb the crimes, which prompted around 170 complaints mainly of a sexual nature, including two allegations of rape.
Earlier, admitting the involvement of refugees in the assault, DPolG police union chief Ernst Walter told public broadcaster ARD: “We have knowledge that refugees were among” the group of hundreds of men suspected of encircling, sexually assaulting and robbing dozens of women outside Cologne’s main train station.
Police are investigating 16 people in relation to 121 complaints – mainly of a sexual nature and including two rape allegations – that have inflamed a debate in Germany about unchecked immigration, mainly from war-torn countries in the Middle East.
The concerns about the case have only been intensified because of the lack of clarity about what happened at the Cologne train station that night.
“The information that there is nothing pointing to refugees among the attackers is false in my opinion,” Arnold Plickert, head of the GdP police union, told conservative newspaper Die Welt.
“Police colleagues have indicated that the men they came into contact with were carrying papers issued by the migration ministry,” he said.
He added that it remains unclear whether these refugees were part of a smaller group of highly professional thieves operating within the mass of roughly 1,000 men at the scene.
The claims about the presence of refugees have not been independently verified. Police have confirmed they are investigating a North African crime ring in relation to the events on New Year’s Eve.
Cologne police had released a statement on January 1 stating that New Year’s Eve celebrations had passed off “peacefully” and only released information about the crimes more than a day later, prompting allegations of a cover-up.
Citing unnamed police unionists, regional newspaper Koelner Stadtanzeiger reported that police actively withheld information about the identity of the suspects so as not so inflame xenophobic tensions in Germany.
Meanwhile, politicians from across the political spectrum were pushing for a security crackdown and more severe punishments for the perpetrators.
Vice Chancellor and Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel told mass circulation newspaper Bild on Friday that existing laws needed to be applied to the fullest extent to send criminal asylum seekers back to their country of origin.
A document to be published at the party conference of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on Friday proposes the introduction of random police checks across Germany to prevent similar crimes in the future.