Rival demonstrations in Cologne after New Year's Eve assaults

Rival demonstrations in Cologne after New Year's Eve assaults

Hundreds of anti-Islam demonstrators and left-wing counter protesters have taken to the streets of Cologne in response to a string of New Year’s Eve sexual assaults and robberies in the city blamed largely on foreigners.

Police said today that some 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.

Police said four people were taken into custody and the Pegida demonstration was shut down early after protesters threw firecrackers and bottles at some of the 1,700 police on hand. 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.

Rival demonstrations in Cologne after New Year's Eve assaults

It comes as Chancellor Angela Merkel says stricter laws regulating asylum seekers may be necessary.

Reports of the attacks on women by groups of men, described by police as predominantly Arab or North African, have fuelled calls for tighter controls in Germany, which took in nearly 1.1 million migrants last year.

The dpa news agency said leaders of Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats meeting in Mainz agreed on a proposal to strengthen the ability of police to conduct checks of identity papers, and also to exclude foreigners from being granted asylum if they had had been convicted of crimes and sentenced to terms even as light as probation.

The proposal would need parliamentary approval.

Ms Merkel said the proposal would help Germany deport ``serial offenders'' convicted of lesser crimes.

“This is in the interests of the citizens of Germany, but also in the interests of the great majority of the refugees who are here,” she told party members.

“If people act outside the law... naturally there must be consequences.”

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 and the investigation is continuing.

Cologne’s police chief was dismissed on Friday amid mounting criticism of his force’s handling of the incidents, and being slow to release information.

Ms Merkel said local authorities must not be perceived to be withholding information and urged that the case be “fully clarified”.

“Everything has to be put on the table,” she said.

“Serial offenders who consistently, for example, return to theft or time and again insult women must count on the force of the law.”

She has steadfastly refused to agree a cap on newcomers, but the proposal did note that “a continuation of the current influx would overwhelm the state and society even in a country like Germany in the long run”, the dpa news agency said.

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