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Germany exploring links between sex assaults in cities

Supporters of anti-immigration right-wing movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) take part in in demonstration rally, in reaction to mass assaults on women on New Year's Eve, in Cologne, Germany, January 9, 2016.

REUTERS

BERLIN - Germany's justice minister says authorities need to quickly determine whether a string of New Year's Eve sexual assaults and robberies in Cologne may be linked to similar offenses in other cities.

Police said 121 women in Cologne have filed criminal complaints for robbery and sexual assault -- including two allegations of rape. They said the attackers were among a group of some 1,000 men described as being of "Arab or North African origin" who gathered in front of the Cologne's main train station and gothic cathedral that night, some of whom broke off into small groups that groped and robbed women.

Heiko Maas told Bild newspaper Sunday that if a group came together to commit such offenses, "no one can tell me that this was not coordinated or prepared."

Hamburg saw similar attacks on a smaller scale, and police in other European nations reported cases of comparable trouble in public places.

Maas says "all connections must be carefully checked."

Women's rights activists, far-right demonstrators and leftwing counter-protesters took to the streets of Cologne on Saturday to voice their opinions in the debate that has followed the assaults.

Amid the heightened public pressure, Chancellor Angela Merkel's party proposed stricter laws regulating asylum-seekers in the country -- some 1.1 million of whom arrived last year.

Police said that around 1,700 protesters from the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement were kept apart from 1,300 counter-demonstrators in simultaneous protests outside the city's main train station.

PEGIDA members held banners with slogans like "RAPEfugees not welcome" and "Integrate barbarity?" while the counter-protesters pushed the message "refugees welcome."

The incident has sparked a debate about the behavior of migrants in Germanyafter witnesses and police described the perpetrators as being of "Arab or North African origin."

The PEGIDA demonstration Saturday was shut down early by authorities using water cannons after protesters threw firecrackers and bottles at some of the 1,700 police on hand. Police said four people were taken into custody but no injuries were immediately reported.

Earlier, hundreds of women's rights activists gathered outside Cologne's landmark cathedral to rally against the New Year's Eve violence.

"It's about making clear that we will not stop moving around freely here in Cologne, and to protest against victim bashing and the abuse of women," said 50-year-old city resident Ina Wolf.

Of 31 suspects temporarily detained for questioning following the New Year's Eve attacks, there were 18 asylum seekers but also two Germans and an American among others, and none were accused of specifically committing sexual assaults.

Cologne police on Saturday said more than 100 detectives are assigned to the case and are investigating 379 criminal complaints filed with them, about 40 percent of which involve allegations of sexual offenses.

"The people in the focus of the criminal investigation are primarily from North African countries," police said. "Most are asylum seekers or people living illegally in Germany. The investigation into if, and how widely, these people were involved in concrete criminal activity on New Year's Eve is ongoing."

Witness Lieli Shabani told the Guardian newspaper the attacks appeared coordinated, saying she watched from the steps of the city's cathedral as three men appeared to be giving instructions to others.

"One time a group of three or four males would come up to them, be given instructions and sent away into the crowd," the 35-year-old teacher was quoted as saying. "Then another group of four or five would come up, and they'd gesticulate in various directions and send them off again."