The Cologne police chief was fired Friday following reports that authorities in Germany’s fourth-largest city may have covered up information that refugees had been connected to sexual attacks against women outside the central rail station on New Year’s Eve.
Wolfgang Albers, head of the police department, was sent into "early retirement" by the North-Rhine Westphalia state government.
State Interior Minister Ralf Jaeger's move came after Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker complained that Albers had not given her all relevant information about the molesting, groping and robbing of more than 100 women at the central square near the Cologne Cathedral.
"People rightly want to know what happened on New Year's Eve, they want to know who the assailants were, and they want to know how such attacks can be prevented in the future," said Jaeger, sending the 60-year-old into "early retirement" as Germans usually treat such dismissals.
The issue of violence against the women in Cologne and at least four other cities Dec. 31 has unsettled Germany this week and has threatened to turn public sentiment against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s controversial policies of allowing more than 1.1 million refugees into the country last year. Aside from Sweden, Merkel has had little support for her open-door policies from any other European Union country.
“My confidence in the Cologne police leadership has been deeply shaken based on the information I now have available,” Reker said in a statement. “I simply cannot accept it when I only get information from the media about the investigation into the New Year’s Eve attacks, especially information about the origins of the groups of suspected assailants.”
Cologne police had initially issued a press release early Jan. 1 saying that it had been a “peaceful New Year’s Eve” in Cologne, which Albers later admitted had been a mistake. Police at first had cited victims' testimony that the assailants were from the "north Africa region" of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
German media reports Friday, however, said police had known that many of the attackers were refugees from Syria but that the information had been withheld from the public -- and the mayor.
German newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported on Friday from a leaked internal police report that officers on duty outside the rail station had done ID checks on many suspects on New Year’s Eve and discovered that many of them were asylum seekers.
“There were, to the contrary of what was announced publicly, identity checks on numerous people,” one officer’s report is quoted saying. “Most of them were refugees who had arrived only recently.”
Another newspaper, the Cologne Stadt-Anzeiger, reported that an officer writing a press release on the incidents wanted to include mention of the Syrians and other refugees as suspects but was ordered not to by his superior because it would be “politically awkward.”
The German government said Friday that two-thirds of 29 foreign men and two German citizens identified and questioned in connection with the assaults in Cologne are in the country as registered asylum seekers.
The total number of women in Cologne, Hamburg and Stuttgart who have filed complaints with police alleging they were groped, molested or robbed by mobs of up to 1,000 men when street-party celebrations turned into wanton violence climbed toward 300.
In Cologne, where 170 complaints had been filed, many of the attackers spoke Arabic or English, according to testimony from victims and eyewitnesses to police.
A spokesman for the interior ministry in Berlin said Friday that after an intensive manhunt, officials have identified and questioned a total of 31 men in their investigation of the assaults, a group of suspects that includes 18 refugees registered as seeking asylum. Among those identified were nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, one Iraqi, one Serb, one American as well as two German citizens.
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.
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