Updated at 5.12pm
A NUMBER OF different protests are taking place in Cologne this afternoon, a city still shaken by a spate of sexual assaults.
Polic fired tear gas and used water cannon to clear a rally in Cologne by the far-right xenophobic Pegida movement, after protesters hurled firecrackers and bottles at officers.
It follows sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in the city in which most of the assailants were of Arabic or North African background, according to eye-witnesses, police and media reports.
The anti-Islam Pegida protest took place in the same central square where hundreds of women last week ran a gauntlet of groping hands, lewd insults and robberies in mob violence that has shocked Germany.
Sirens wailed and police told peaceful protesters to leave as they deployed water cannon to disperse the increasingly agitated crowd.
Police estimate that around 800 hooligans were among the 1,700 who took part in the Pegida march.
A spokesman for the group urged “all participants to go home”.
Separately, around 500 women staged a noisy protest earlier today.
Carrying signs bearing slogans like “No violence against women” and “No means no! It’s the law! Stay off of us!”, the women banged pots and blew whistles as they rallied outside Cologne’s famed Gothic cathedral.
Others waved banners saying “Protect our women and children”, as outrage grew in Germany over the spate of assaults.
Far-right groups have pointed to the assaults, including two reported rapes, as proof that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal migrant policy — which brought 1.1 million new asylum seekers to Germany last year — is driving the country into chaos.
The co-founder of Pegida, short for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident”, Lutz Bachmann, posted a photo of himself on social media with the slogan “Rape Refugees not Welcome”.
In a similar vein, a leader of the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany party, which has polled at around 10% in surveys ahead of several state elections this year, claimed that the events gave a “taste of the looming collapse of culture and civilisation”.
Police expect around 2,000 backers of PEGIDA and the local far-right group Pro NRW, as well as counter-demonstrators from the group “Cologne against Right-wingers”, local media said.
The head of political grouping Identity Ireland addressed a Pegida rally in Dresden during the week.
The rally comes a day as Merkel backed a toughening of expulsion rules for convicted refugees.
“If the law does not suffice, then the law must be changed” she said, vowing action to protect not just German citizens, but innocent refugees too.
Under current laws, asylum seekers are only forcibly sent back if they have been sentenced to jail terms of at least three years, and if their lives are not at risk in their countries of origin.
Merkel said it was time to ask, “When do you lose your right to stay with us?”
“We should ask ourselves whether it might be necessary to take this away earlier (than is currently the case), and I have to say that for me, we must take it away sooner,” the chancellor said.
“We must do this for us, and for the many refugees who were not present during the events in Cologne,” she told a meeting of party officials in the southwestern city of Mainz.
The mob violence at the start of 2016 has heightened popular fears of worse to come, and threatened to tip what was long a broadly welcoming mood that last September saw crowds cheering Syrian refugees arriving by train.
Details of what happened in the frenzied crush remain hazy. Police have laid no charges but pointed to more than 30 suspects, almost all of them migrants and including many asylum seekers.
Among the suspects were nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, one Iraqi and one Serb, as well as two Germans and one US national, the interior ministry said Friday.
It was unclear how many offenders may be long-time migrants or from a scene of drug dealers and pickpockets known to lurk around the central railway station, and how many may have been newly-arrived asylum seekers.
On Friday, criticism of the Cologne police’s failure to stop the violence, and subsequent obfuscation, claimed the scalp of police chief Wolfgang Albers, who was suspended in a bid to “restore public confidence” in the police force.
Cologne police were slow to unveil the true extent of the carnage, and the politically-charged fact that the hostile crowd was made up mostly of migrants.
© – AFP 2016 with reporting by Rónán Duffy