Germany confirms most mob attack suspects were asylum seekers

Berlin (AFP) - Germany said Friday most suspects in the mob violence that marred Cologne's New Year's Eve celebrations were asylum seekers, fuelling calls to quickly deport criminal migrants.

Unsettled by a record refugee influx, Germany has reacted with shock to news that women had to run a frightful gauntlet of groping, insults and robberies in an aggressive and drunken crush of around 1,000 men.

A week after the chaotic scenes outside Cologne railway station, federal police said they had identified 31 suspects whose alleged offences were "mostly theft and causing bodily harm".

Eighteen of them are asylum seekers, the interior ministry said.

Among the suspects are nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, two Germans and one citizen each from Iraq, Serbia and the United States, ministry spokesman Tobias Plate said.

Federal police had received several complaints about sexual offences, but "the perpetrators of these have not been identified," he said at a press conference.

Cologne police have separately confirmed receiving over 120 complaints of assaults, ranging from groping to two alleged rapes, calling them apparently coordinated attacks during the year-end festivities.

About three-quarters of the cases involved sexual offences, while others related to theft or bodily harm.

- A question of criminality -

Victims and eyewitnesses had since the beginning blamed men of "Arab or North African" appearance, inflaming a heated public debate about Germany's ability to integrate the nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers it took in last year.

Right-wing populists have charged that Chancellor Angela Merkel's liberal migration policy has fuelled crime and destabilised society.

Merkel's spokesman George Streiter said it was "important that the whole truth comes out, that nothing is withheld or glossed over", but also warned that migrants must not be put under general suspicion or collectively blamed.

"Primarily, this is not about refugees but about criminality," he said, noting that most asylum seekers in Germany had come seeking protection.

Still, the mob attacks have stoked popular anger and fuelled doubts about the biggest influx of asylum seekers to any EU nation, most of whom are from the Middle East and Africa, and led to pledges of a law and order crackdown.

"We must do everything to prevent such incidents from happening again," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told the Rheinische Post daily, pledging "more CCTV cameras in places where many people gather, heightened (police) presence on the streets and harsher penalties".

At the weekend, Merkel's conservative party plans to agree on tougher policies, including cancelling asylum and refugee status for any convicted applicants with jail terms of any length, and the speeding up of deportations.

- Act with 'full force' -

"We need more police, a better equipped judiciary and tougher laws, among other things to more quickly expel criminal foreigners," said Volker Kauder, the parliamentary leader of Merkel's Christian Democrats.

Under current laws, asylum seekers are only sent back if they have been sentenced to jail terms of at least three years, and if their lives are not at risk in their countries of origin. And there is a backlog in carrying out officially-ordered deportations.

"Citizens expect that those without a right to stay really do leave the country," Kauder told news weekly Der Spiegel.

"We have to act with full force," agreed Katharina Barley, general secretary of the centre-left Social Democrats, calling the New Year's Eve violence "a very dangerous mix of organised crime and sexual violence".

Merkel herself has vowed to "re-examine if everything necessary has been done with regards to expulsions to send a clear signal to those who do not respect our law."

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