“All eyes are on Cologne,” the city’s mayor, Henriette Reker, said ahead of carnival celebrations which are due to kick off tomorrow. Her comments follow shocking reports of coordinated sex attacks in the city on New Year’s Eve and severe criticism of the way the incidents were handled by the authorities.
Nearly 500 complaints of sexual assault have been filed, including at least two relating to alleged rapes. New Year’s Eve revellers described being surrounded by gangs of men “of Arab or North African origin” and either assaulted or pickpocketed, fuelling rows over Germany’s “open-door” refugee policy. The country saw an influx of 1.1 million refugees in 2015, with numbers in Cologne doubling to more than 10,000.
More than one million people will take to the streets of Cologne for the annual street carnival this week, which is one of the largest in Europe, renowned for its eclectic fancy dress and heavy drinking.
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Cologne’s police chief, Jürgen Mathies – whose predecessor resigned amid accusations of a police cover-up over the New Year’s assaults – spoke at a press conference on Monday about the heightened security planned for this year’s carnival, adding that everyone should be able to celebrate together “regardless of background or religion”.
City authorities have spent 400,000 euros (£300,000) to bulk up security measures at this year’s event. Nearly 2,000 police officers – twice as many as last year – will be on patrol during the inaugural night of partying, which is known as Weiberfastnacht or “ladies’ night”. Extra firefighters, stewards and paramedics will also be called in.
Floodlights and video surveillance will be installed in the central party spots Photo: Getty
Floodlights and video surveillance will be installed in the central party spots, including the old town, the cathedral square and the student quarter. The authorities were heavily criticised in January when it emerged that they were relying on mobile phone footage to identify potential perpetrators of the New Year’s Eve attacks due to a lack of CCTV cameras.
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A central “security point”, staffed by social workers, psychologists and security officials, will also be set up as a place for women to receive immediate help in the event of any threat, and “language and culture mediators” will be on hand to provide assistance.
Carnival organisers have distributed leaflets to refugees which explain the customs of carnival
Carnival organisers have distributed leaflets to refugees at various centres around the city which explain the customs of carnival in German, English and Arabic. They describe the tradition of schunkeln, in which people link arms and move to the rhythm of the music, adding that “this contact usually only lasts for one dance, then they may move on to dance with the next group”. Newcomers are also told not to worry if they encounter anyone dressed in a historic soldier’s uniform: “Their guns are only made of wood, and are only loaded with flowers – every single one a small expression of colourful, peaceful coexistence.”
Mr Mathies played down advice to partygoers to avoid dressing up as cowboys, pirates or other costumes including toy weapons, explaining that people should simply refrain from carrying anything that might be mistaken as a “real weapon”.
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The police chief went on to promise that his force would take action against anyone who “crossed the line” during carnival and will ensure that offenders are dealt with “as swiftly as possible”. Suspected pickpocketers from New Year’s Eve, as well as people identified as having caused trouble at last year’s carnival, have been barred from entering the city centre during the festivities.
However, Mr Mathies asked everyone to keep in mind that 100 per cent security could never be guaranteed at such a large public event, adding that in recent years during carnival week there had always been around 50 reports of sexual offences, ranging from harassment to rape.
Suspected pickpocketers from New Year’s Eve have been barred Photo: Getty