COLOGNE, Germany -- German police said Wednesday that they are investigating whether a string of sexual assaults and thefts at New Year is linked to a known criminal network.
The assaults in Cologne last week have prompted outrage in Germany and a fresh debate about immigration, after police said the perpetrators appeared to be of "Arab or North African origin."
A spokesman for police in the nearby city of Duesseldorf said officers there have identified more than 2,000 suspects of North African origin in connection with organized theft offenses since the start of 2014.
Some of the offenses also involved sexual assaults as a means of distracting victims, and Duesseldorf police were cooperating closely with their counterparts in Cologne to examine possible ties to crimes there, spokesman Markus Niesczeri told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The events in Cologne involved a crowd of around a thousand men. Police say at least 90 criminal complaints were filed, and that some men in the crowd formed smaller groups and surrounded women.
Authorities have cautioned that the nationality and residency status of the suspects is still unknown, since nobody has yet been arrested in connection with the offenses.
Germany's top security official stressed that anyone involved must be punished regardless of where they come from. He said that "a general suspicion against refugees is just as out of place as keeping quiet about criminal structures, if they can be verified."
"All of the perpetrators, of whatever origin, must be punished," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told Wednesday's edition of the Bild daily. "If refugees were among them, we must address that openly."
Germany registered nearly 1.1 million people as asylum seekers last year, according to Interior Ministry figures released Wednesday.
1,000 men suspected in mass sexual assault in Germany, police say