Merkel wants tougher expulsion rules as Cologne assault cases rise
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday backed tougher expulsion rules for convicted refugees, as Cologne police recorded 379 cases of New Year violence with asylum seekers and illegal migrants making up the majority of suspects.
With anger running high as the scale of the rampage including sexual assaults a week ago became clear, supporters of the xenophobic PEGIDA movement marched in the western German city in protests that briefly turned ugly.
Police used tear gas and water cannon to clear the rally of far-right supporters in Cologne, after protesters flung firecrackers and bottles at officers they accuse of failing to prevent the attacks on women on New Year's Eve.
Vowing tough action, Merkel declared that any refugee handed a jail term -- even if it is only a suspended sentence -- should be kicked out of the country.
"If the law does not suffice, then the law must be changed," she said, pledging action to protect not just German citizens, but innocent refugees too.
Witnesses described terrifying scenes of hundreds of women running a gauntlet of groping hands, lewd insults and robberies in the mob violence.
Of the cases reported so far, 40 percent related to sexual violence, Cologne police said in a statement.
"Those in focus of criminal police investigations are mostly people from North African countries. The majority of them are asylum seekers and people who are in Germany illegally," police added, confirming witness accounts.
The stark implication of migrants has added fuel to criticism of Merkel's liberal open-door policy -- which brought 1.1 million new asylum seekers to Germany last year.
- 'Cologne changed everything' -
The mob violence has played into popular fears and threatened to cloud what had been a broadly welcoming mood in Germany where crowds cheered as Syrian refugees arrived by train in September.
Germany's conservative Die Welt newspaper said January 6, the day the scope of the violence became clear, "marks the beginning of a change in immigration policy" in an article outlining both "the benefits and the dangers of mass immigration from Muslim countries."
"Cologne has changed everything, people now are doubting," said Volker Bouffier, vice president of Merkel's CDU party at a meeting late on Friday.
In Cologne, hundreds of PEGIDA supporters waved German flags and signs saying "Rapefugees not welcome", as they shouted "Merkel raus" (Merkel out), before the protest briefly turned violent.
The rattle of a helicopter circling in the skies and the occasional bang of a firecracker added to tensions as counter-protesters, separated from the PEGIDA crowd by police, chanted "Nazis raus".
More than 300 Belgian supporters of the far-right movement also turned out in the northern city of Antwerp, holding posters with slogans like "Mohammed not welcome" complete with a caricature of the Prophet.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front party, also weighed in, saying in a tweet that "the dignity and freedom of a woman is something precious that we have the duty to protect".
The populist right-wing Alternative for Germany party, which polls show as having 10 percent support ahead of state elections this year, claimed the violence gave a "taste of the looming collapse of culture and civilisation".
- Asylum seekers among suspects -
Details remain hazy of what happened in the frenzied crush on what was supposed to be a night of celebration.
Germany's federal police have identified 32 suspects, 22 of whom are asylum seekers, in connection with 76 offences, 12 of which had a sexual character, the interior ministry said Friday.
Cologne police, which has around 100 investigators scanning some 350 hours of video, says it has identified 16 suspects.
It was unclear how many of the suspects had been in Germany long-term or belonged to a scene of drug dealers and pickpockets known to lurk around the railway station, and how many were newly-arrived asylum seekers.
On Friday, criticism over the police's failure to stop the violence claimed the scalp of Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers in a bid to "restore public confidence".
- 'Do this for us' -
Merkel, who has so far refused to abandon her welcoming stance towards war refugees, on Saturday had tough words for law-breakers.
"If a refugee flouts the rules, then there must be consequences, that means that they can lose their residence right here regardless of whether they have a suspended sentence or a prison sentence," she said after a meeting with the top ranks of her party in the southwestern city of Mainz.
Under current laws, asylum seekers are only deported 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.
"We must do this for us, and for the many refugees who were not part of the events in Cologne," she said.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said talks were already ongoing with the justice minister on this front.
"Foreigners convicted of serious offences or serial offences must leave Germany," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
© 2016 AFP