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Cologne police chief removed following New Year assaults


People walk across the square in front of the main station in Cologne, Germany (AP)

People walk across the square in front of the main station in Cologne, Germany (AP)

People walk across the square in front of the main station in Cologne, Germany (AP)

Cologne's police chief has been removed amid criticism of his force's handling of a string of New Year's Eve assaults and robberies.

Wolfgang Albers is being sent into early retirement by the state government, Cologne police said.

North Rhine-Westphalia's governing cabinet will formally discuss the decision on Tuesday but Mr Albers will not return to his job, they said.

Mr Albers had faced mounting criticism both for the police's handling of last week's events and of the fallout.

Cologne mayor Henriette Reker suggested that police had held back information from her, and said in a statement that her "trust in the Cologne police leadership is significantly shaken".

The state's interior minister, Ralf Jaeger, said the move was "necessary to restore public trust and the Cologne police's ability to act, with a view to upcoming major events". Cologne's annual carnival is next month.

Mr Albers, 60, had faced mounting criticism for the police's handling of the alleged New Year's Eve attacks on women by small groups of men described as being of "Arab or North African origin".

Police initially failed to mention the assaults around Cologne's main station in their report the following morning, describing the New Year festivities as "largely peaceful".

Mr Albers acknowledged the mistake earlier this week but dismissed widespread criticism that officers were overwhelmed and reacted too slowly in protecting the women.

However, an internal police report widely published in German media indicated strongly that police were overwhelmed and described how women had to run through mobs of drunken men outside Cologne's main train station.

Mr Albers rejected suggestions that police had deliberately withheld information.

However, he said after his removal that he understands Mr Jaeger's decision.

In a statement, Mr Albers said that the events must be cleared up in detail and "the public debate surrounding me is liable to complicate and delay this work".

Earlier, Germany's interior ministry said police have identified 18 asylum seekers among 31 suspects in connection with the robberies and assaults.

They were detained by federal police on suspicion of committing crimes ranging from theft to assault, and in one case verbal abuse of a sexual nature, interior ministry spokesman Tobias Plate told reporters in Berlin.

They were believed to be among a group of up to 1,000 people in front of Cologne's main railway station on Thursday evening.

None of the 31 is currently suspected of committing sexual assaults - the aspect of the Cologne assaults that has prompted outrage in Germany over the past week.

Mr Plate said the suspects were nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, four Syrians, two Germans and one person each from Iraq, Serbia and the United States.

Cologne police said they have received a total of 170 criminal complaints related to New Year, including 120 of a sexual nature. In addition to the 31 suspects detained by federal officers, city police arrested two men from North Africa, aged 16 and 23.

The incidents have triggered calls for tighter immigration laws, particularly from politicians opposed to chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy that allowed nearly 1.1 million refugees to enter the country last year.

Government spokesman Georg Streiter said the chancellor wants "the whole truth" about the events in Cologne and that "nothing should be held back and nothing should be glossed over".

"It doesn't just harm our rule of law but also the great majority of completely innocent refugees who have sought protection" in Germany, he said.

Mr Plate said authorities were investigating possible links to similar sexual assaults in other cities to see whether there had been any co-ordination.

Swedish police said that at least 15 young women reported being groped by groups of men on New Year's Eve in the city of Kalmar.