The German government Tuesday vowed swift action against hundreds of men accused of molesting at least 90 women in a massive display of lawlessness outside the central rail station in Cologne on New Year's Eve.
Cologne police said many of the attackers appeared to be originally from other countries, including Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, based on interviews with victims. That led to fresh criticism of Merkel, who has upset some people in Germany by supporting the arrival of refugees, which in 2015 included more than 1 million people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Police said they are examining surveillance cameras, interviewing victims and witnesses and seeking help from the public.
"We ran into this large group of men and tried to make our way through," one woman was quoted as telling the Cologne newspaper Express. "Suddenly I felt someone grab my rear end, then my breasts, and then I was being groped everywhere."
Other witnesses were quoted in local media as saying that they were groped so hard and aggressively that their bodies were black and blue with bruises. Attackers ripped the clothes of some; others reported some of the men tried to hug and kiss them.
"What happened is absolutely intolerable and we will prosecute the assailants with the full force of the law," Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker told reporters after a crisis meeting Tuesday. She noted that there had been reports of similar attacks on New Year's Eve in other cities such as Hamburg and Stuttgart, although not on as massive a scale as in Cologne, and said Germany would not accept such lawlessness.
"It's important to prevent these kinds of attacks in the future," she added, noting that the relaxed party atmosphere in Cologne during New Year's Eve and during the Carnival season in February should not be confused as an invitation to assault women. "We'll have to do a better job of explaining to people from different cultures living here that a celebratory atmosphere on the streets has nothing at all to do with sexual attacks."
Merkel issued a statement after discussing the attacks with Reker on the telephone in which she "condemned the despicable attacks and sexual assaults" and vowed that the government would crack down on such violence. "We've got to do everything in our power to detain the perpetrators as quickly as possible and to punish them regardless of their origins."
Maas said on Twitter: "The despicable attacks on women won't be tolerated. Those responsible will be brought to justice. This takes organized crime to a whole new level."
Cologne police said many of the women attacked were revelers who arrived at the rail station from the provinces.
German media reports were filled with harrowing accounts of the attacks and descriptions of how the women were tightly surrounded by the groups of men who groped and robbed them while others threw firecrackers at them.
"They groped me underneath my dress and kept grabbing my rear," a woman was quoted as telling the Cologne Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper.
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.