COLOGNE, Germany, Jan. 6 (UPI) -- The mayor of Cologne, Germany, was criticized for her tepid response to the issue of women's safety, after 90 complained to police about New Year's Eve gropings and robberies.
During the downtown festivities, which centered on the city's train station, men described by authorities as non-German and having "a North African or Arabic" appearance surrounded women celebrants, who were groped, and had wallets and cellphones stolen. One woman reported she was raped. The attacks appeared to have been coordinated, although victims' reports of sexual assault and theft suggest many of the assailants were drunk.
"Nobody knew where to go. We stood with our backs to the wall and could see how people were robbed and German girls were groped. I was surrounded by a group of 50 to 60 people from Arabic countries. They would come up to us, shake hands and then try to reach into our bags," said Sacha Frohn, a witness at the train station.
Responding to the incidents at a press conference Tuesday, Mayor Henriette Reker advised women to "stick together in groups [and] don't get split up, even if you're in a party mood."
"There's always the possibility of keeping a certain distance of more than an arm's length, that is to say, to make sure yourself you don't look to be too close to people who are not known to you, and to whom you don't have a trusting relationship," she added.
Journalists at the press conference said Reker struggled with the advice and suggested the question about how to protect against the assaults caught her by surprise, the British newspaper The Guardian reported Wednesday. Her comments prompted outrage on social media, and reaction was strong with the hashtag #einarmlaenge, which translates to mean "at arm's length." Critics said Reker's advice amounted to blaming the women for the assaults, suggesting the victims could have done more to protect themselves.
Reker also said there is no evidence the alleged crimes were committed on New Year's Eve by refugees. The mayor has been an outspoken ally of the refugee movement, which brought more than 1 million migrants from the Middle East and North Africa to Germany in 2015. She was stabbed during an October campaign event by a man objecting to her policy of welcome.
In February, Cologne, a city of 1 million with about 10,000 refugees admitted in 2015, will host its annual Carnival in February, and police, who have admitted tactical errors during the New Year's Eve events, said more mobile video cameras will be included among their procedures during the festivities.