Wed, Jan 13, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Cologne in deep shock over New Year’s Eve attacks

As police reveal that at least a score of the suspects in the assaults are asylum seekers, the far-right is using the fear to fuel an anti-immigrant campaign

By Kate Connolly  /  The Guardian, COLOGNE, Germany

Illustration: Mountain People

Laden with an armful of single white roses, each with a message attached, Abdessadbour Ben Hamed stood at the entrance to Cologne’s main station and gestured to women coming in out of the rain to take a flower.

Some flapped their hands in rejection, and walked on quickly. Others nodded in appreciation and took a rose; some stopped to talk and read the slip of paper.

“The events of New Year’s Eve did not happen in our name,” it read. “But we also strongly condemn the fact that they are being instrumentalized for far-right gain.”

The 28-year-old chemistry student, who came to Germany from Tunisia 10 years ago, said he was shocked by what happened on the spot where he and members of the groups Tunisian Youth and the German-Turkish Association are now standing.

Here, on Cologne’s Domplatz or Cathedral Square in front of the station, hundreds of men gathered with other revelers on New Year’s Eve and over the course of the evening sexually attacked and mugged an unknown number of women.

The number of attacks was so large that there is a growing belief they might have been coordinated. [Editor’s Note: According to Agency France-Presse (AFP) on Monday, top-ranking police officer Dieter Schuermann said that “nothing in our investigation so far suggests that the presence of the crowds or the small groups was organized or steered.”]

The violence was not confined to Cologne, but took place in some form in some other German cities and other European metropoles from Helsinki to Zurich.

Police statements backed up by victims’ own accounts initially suggested the men involved were of north African and Arabic appearance and did not include refugees. However, on Thursday last week police said that of the 31 people identified, 18 were asylum seekers. Overall, nine of the suspects were Algerian, eight Moroccan, five Iranian, four Syrian, two German, as well as an Iraqi, a Serb and a US citizen.

[Editor’s note: According to AFP on Monday, German federal police have identified 32 suspects who participated in the night’s events: nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, an Iraqi, a Serb, an American and three Germans. Of these, 22 were asylum seekers. They are accused of robbery and violence. AFP said that according to local police, 19 suspects have so far been identified, including 14 from Morocco and Algeria. Four have been detained, but they are accused of robbery, not of carrying out sexual attacks. AFP cited Deutsche Presse-Agentur as reporting that of the 19 suspects, 10 are asylum seekers, nine of whom entered Germany illegally.]

“What happened hurts enormously,” Ben Hamed said. “Most of us were born here and could not be better integrated into society. North Africans have been coming to live in Germany for 60 years or more, but suddenly we’re being looked at with great suspicion, because we look exactly like the people who are accused of carrying out these horrible acts.”

He was not alone in his anger.

“We’re here to apologize to people on behalf of any Tunisians who might have carried out these attacks,” said Abdullah Brik, a 34-year-old Cologne bus driver, who arrived as a political asylum seeker 18 years ago. “We want to show not all dark-skinned people should be put in the same boat, which we feel is happening right now.”

Nasan Nandinian, who runs a nearby newsagent, recalled the “large numbers” of women who entered his shop during the evening asking for shelter.

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