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Criticism over 'safe zone' for women at Berlin New Year's Eve event

A German police union boss has criticised organisers of Berlin's annual open-air New Year's Eve party for designating a special "safety area" for women, saying it suggests they are not safe from assault elsewhere.

The comments by Rainer Wendt, who heads the right-leaning DpolG union, come amid an ongoing debate in Germany about how to tackle an increase in sexual assaults.

Mr Wendt told the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung daily that establishing such a safe zone sends a "devastating message".

"By doing so, one is saying there are safe zones and unsafe zones" for women that could result in "the end of equality, freedom of movement and self-determination", the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Mr Wendt said the move appeared to ignore the "political dimension" in Germany, two years after hundreds of women reported being assaulted or robbed during New Year's Eve celebrations in Cologne.

The suspects in most of those assaults were migrants.

The number of rapes and sexual assaults recorded in Germany last year rose 12.8% compared with 2015, to 7,919 cases, an increase blamed on an influx of asylum seekers, many young and male.

Statistics for 2017 are not yet available.

Experts note that migrants in general are not more likely to commit crimes than German citizens, but the proportion of crimes they commit may increase as they start to make up a larger share of the population.

The Cologne incident prompted a bill that makes it easier to prosecute sexual assaults and can see foreigners deported more easily if they are convicted of such crimes.

In Berlin, organisers of the free event that draws hundreds of thousands of revellers to the famous Brandenburg Gate each year said the "women's safety area" was requested by Berlin police.

But a spokeswoman for the force said it merely suggested the safe zone following positive experiences at the Munich Oktoberfest, which has long been plagued by drink-fuelled assaults.

"This is a good opportunity to offer women a place to retreat to if they feel harassed," Berlin police spokeswoman Valeska Jakubowski said.

She stressed that the area will not be fenced off, as some media reports claimed, and that those seeking help will be assisted by Red Cross staff who always work at the event.

If women want to report a crime, officers would be available to take their statements, Ms Jakubowski said.

Last year, Berlin police recorded 14 sexual assaults at the event including two involving rape or "serious duress".

Authorities have stepped up public security measures across Germany for New Year's Eve, with Berlin alone putting an additional 1,600 officers on the streets.

Celebrations are traditionally rowdy, with unsafe handling of fireworks causing the majority of incidents.

Other security measures in Berlin include concrete blocks to prevent vehicle attacks and bag searches at entrances to the party area.

AP

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