angela merkel - bolja.jpg
Photograph: EPA/MICHAEL KAPPELER

German authorities' handling of a spate of sexual attacks and thefts in Cologne on New Year's Eve has sparked criticism from the highest level, as Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded a far-reaching response to the "despicable, criminal acts."

Cologne police were so overwhelmed by the mob of men committing mass sexual assaults and thefts on New Year's Eve that they feared the situation could result in "serious injuries and even deaths," according to an internal police report obtained by dpa.

A lack of police officers and equipment created a "survival of the fittest" dynamic in which groups of mostly foreign men physically prevented officers from helping female victims, the report said.

Police have received more than 120 complaints - the majority of which are of a sexual nature - including two allegations of rape by men "of North African or Arab descent" who the victims say encircled, sexually assaulted and robbed them in a systematic manner near the western German city's main train station.

"These are despicable, criminal acts ... that Germany will not accept," she said, expressing concerns that hateful views towards women were rampant "in parts of groups" in society.

The leaked police report marks a huge contradiction to a press statement released by Cologne police on January 1 that said New Year's Eve celebrations had passed off "peacefully."

The recent wave of crimes in Cologne - mirrored in Hamburg, where more than 50 similar complaints were filed, and to a much lesser extent, in Stuttgart and Frankfurt - has inflamed an ongoing debate about the repercussions of allowing 1.1 million migrants to enter Germany in 2015.

While officials have said there is no indication the perpetrators are refugees, the report claims that the heavily intoxicated men taunted police citing their status as asylum seekers.

Police confirmed on Thursday that they are now investigating 16 people in connection with the crimes. No arrests have been made.

It remains unclear whether the attacks were coordinated, though police have said they are investigating links to a North African crime ring known to them for the past 18 months.

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