german police policija njemačka.jpg
Photograph: EPA/SVEN HOPPE

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.

Latest news

Trump: I won't attend White House Correspondents' Association Dinner

US President Donald Trump said Saturday that he does not plan to attend the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner this year.

US Democratic Party chooses Tom Perez to be next party chief

The US Democratic Party elected former labour secretary Tom Perez as its next party chief at a meeting in Atlanta on Saturday.

73-year-old man dies after car ramming in Germany

A 73-year-old male pedestrian died from his injuries after being run over when a car rammed into people in the south-western town of Heidelberg, police said Saturday.

Syrian government vows retribution for Homs attacks that killed 42

The Syrian government vowed retribution for synchronized attacks on Saturday in Homs City that left 42 security personnel dead and reportedly involved up to six suicide bombers.

Between 250,000 and 300,000 Croatians suffer from rare diseases

Rare Disease Day, observed on February 28, was marked in Zagreb's Cvjetni Trg Square on Saturday.

German police shoot man who rammed car into pedestrians in Heidelberg

Police in Germany shot a man who rammed a car into pedestrians in the south-western town of Heidelberg on Saturday.

Egypt's al-Sissi orders cabinet to help Christians fleeing Sinai

Egypt's president Abdel Fattah al-Sissi ordered the government on Saturday to take all necessary measures to help Christians who escaped northern Sinai after the Islamic State militia killed at least six of them over the past month.

SDP MP calls on citizens to raise their voice against restriction of women's rights

Josko Klisovic, a Social Democrat member of the Croatian parliament, on Saturday called on all Croatians to raise their voice against a policy turnaround on women's rights after Croatia took a conservative position in a discussion on human rights in the Council of the European Union.

Egypt court acquits Mubarak's aide of 22 years

An Egyptian court on Saturday acquitted one of ousted president Hosny Mubarak's closest aides, ruling he was not guilty of corruption and illicit profits.

EU ambassador to Albania Romana Vlahutin under 24-hour police protection

EU Ambassador to Albania Romana Vlahutin and her family have been given 24-hour armed police protection due to threats she has been receiving lately, the Austrian paper Der Standard said on Saturday, explaining that the threats were linked to Vlahutin's monitoring of a reform of Albania's judiciary designed to curb corruption in that country.

Italy deports two over suspected contact with Berlin attacker

Italy has deported two Tunisian asylum seekers who have been classed as a danger to national security, the Interior Ministry in Rome said on Saturday.

Croatian PM says HEP IPO most efficient model for INA buyout

Prime Minister and HDZ leader Andrej Plenkovic on Saturday commented on models for buying back Hungarian oil and gas company MOL's stake in INA, saying that an initial public offering of 25% of the HEP power company's shares to obtain funds for INA's buyout was "the most efficient, fastest, simplest and cleanest option with the fewest participants, which enables the state, which is the owner (of HEP), to control the process in its entirety."