German Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere (Reuters)
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere on Tuesday lashed out at police in the city of Cologne for failing to stop dozens of sexual assaults against women on New Year's Eve that have shocked the country.
"The police cannot work in this way," de Maziere told public TV channel ARD.
Police had been out in force to secure year-end festivities in the western German city, and are under fire for failing to stop the apparently coordinated assaults committed in a large crowd of revellers outside the city's main train station and famous cathedral.
Police said they evacuated the square because of fears people could be injured by fireworks -- and admitted the assaults then began without them realising what was happening.
The city's police force even released a statement on New Year's Day stating that the evening passed without incident.
"It is not acceptable that the square could be evacuated and then (the attacks) take place" in the same location, with officers "waiting for complaints" from victims before taking action, de Maziere said.
"I am urgently demanding clarification."
The true scale of the assaults -- ranging from groping to at least one reported rape -- did not emerge until Tuesday, as the complaints from female victims neared 100.
All of them said they had been assaulted by young men, many of whom appeared to be drunk, who seemed to be working in organised groups.
The government has said a crowd of up to a thousand people may have been directly or indirectly involved in the incidents.
Echoing police statements based on witness accounts, de Maziere said that "a certain number of elements indicate that they (the attackers) were North African."
A number of German political figures have leapt on reports that the assailants were of Arab or North African origin to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel's policy of welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"There should not be widespread suspicion, but there should be no taboos either," de Maziere said, adding that authorities need to find out whether the attackers "arrived recently (in Germany) or have been there long-term".