Pitched battles erupted during an anti-immigration demonstration in Cologne on Saturday between the right-wing marchers and police as tensions in Germany remained high more than a week after hundreds of women were sexually assaulted and robbed on New Year’s Eve.
Police used water cannons against demonstrators after riot police were hit by beer bottles, stones and firecrackers. At least three police officers and a journalist were injured.
The mood had been tense since Friday when reports came out that recently arrived refugees were among the suspected assailants in the New Year’s Eve attacks. Women said they were were molested and groped by a mob of more than 1,000 men in Cologne, Germany’s fourth largest city.
Police in Cologne, who withheld information for a week that some refugees were suspected, have been under intense pressure. Police chief Wolfgang Albers was fired on Friday for failing to inform Cologne's mayor that refugees were suspected of being involved.
“We’re fully aware that we’re being watched with a critical eye after what happened on New Year’s Eve,” Cologne police spokesman Christoph Gilles told German TV network ARD. He spoke after police broke up the demonstration Saturday evening, shortly after the violence occurred.
“We’re aware that we’ve got a lot of hard work to do to win back the public’s trust," he said.
Across Germany, authorities have received a total of 379 complaints of sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve. The attacks have shocked Germany and eroded public support for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policies that have so far allowed about 1.1 million refugees from Syria and other troubled countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa to pour into Germany in the last year.
Saturday’s demonstration began peacefully. The rally attracted far-right demonstrators marching under the banner of the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) from the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s most populous. The organizers of the rally said they wanted to better protect women from such attacks. The demonstrators chanted, “Merkel muss weg” — “Merkel must go.”
Uta Kruse, 74, said she felt it was important to express concerns that there there are too many foreigners coming into the country.
“In Germany it's forbidden to say a single word about Islam,” Kruse said. “I never want to go back to where thinking and speaking is not allowed. Everybody can say and think what he wants. That is a country I want to live in.”
She said she planned to move to eastern Germany where the PEGIDA movement has its roots and regularly draws large crowds to its weekly rallies.
“They have been under communist repression before and they dare to say what they think,” she said. “But here, people are influenced by the media from morning to evening. You only hear propaganda.”
She added that she thought the broadcast networks were slow to cover the sexual assaults in Cologne.
The German government in Berlin 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.
Kirschbaum and Adair are special correspondents. Kirschbaum reported from Berlin and Adair from Cologne.