A 26-year-old Algerian asylum seeker is the first person to be arrested on sexual assault charges linked to a series of New Year's Eve attacks in Cologne that has forced Germany to question the wisdom of its open-arms policy towards migrants.
The man, who also stands accused of theft, is allegedly part of a group of mostly North African men who encircled, sexually assaulted and robbed women near Cologne's main train station on December 31.
The suspect was arrested alongside a 22-year-old Algerian asylum seeker who is accused of committing theft - but not sexual assault - on the night in question. Both were residents of a refugee hostel in Kerpen, a town just west of Cologne.
As of Monday, 766 women have filed complaints related to New Year's Eve in Cologne. About half the complaints are for crimes of a sexual nature. There are three allegations of rape.
The recent arrests mean that police are now investigating 21 people, eight of whom are in custody. Most of these men are accused of stealing belongings such as mobile phones. The assaults were mirrored to a lesser extent in other German cities such as Hamburg and Stuttgart.
Police had on the weekend conducted raids related to similar incidents in the city of Dusseldorf. However, on Monday, all 40 men detained in those raids were released from custody.
Germany allowed about 1.1 million migrants to enter the country in 2015.
The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is pressing ahead with changes that would ease the deportation of asylum seekers convicted of certain crimes in Germany. Nonetheless, the New Year's Eve attacks have given critics of Merkel's migration policy extra ammunition in arguing that the influx has made Germany less safe.
As well as raising questions about Germany's migration policy, the incident has sparked questions about how the Cologne police allowed the incident to spiral out of control, why the police department did not send backup to the train station and whether authorities tried to cover up the involvement of migrants so as to avoid political blowback because of the debate on Germany's migration policy.
The Interior Ministry of the state of North Rhine Westphalia, in which Cologne lies, issued a statement noting that media reports on January 4 began laying out the scope of the attacks on December 31, but that police records at the time did not jibe with press reports.
"This contradiction needs to be cleared up as quickly as possible," read the statement. Former Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers has already lost his job because of the affair.
But a ministry official in charge of police relations said Albers had been keeping Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker apprised of the situation as events unfolded during the week of January 4. However, it remains unclear if he was aware that the attackers had been identified as primarily North African.
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