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German Officials: 18 Asylum Seekers Suspected in New Year's Attacks

Police spokesman Christoph Gilles speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Cologne, Germany, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. More women have come forward alleging they were sexually assaulted and robbed during New Year’s celebrations in the German city of Cologne, as police faced mounting criticism for their handling of the incident.

Germany's interior ministry says 18 asylum-seekers were among the suspects in a spate of thefts and sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve.

Ministry spokesman Tobias Plate told reporters Friday that police have identified by name 31 suspects believed to have taken part in the crimes. He said 18 of them have applied for asylum in Germany.

Plate said of the 31 suspects questioned, there were nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, five Iranians, and four Syrians. Other suspects included two Germans, an Iraqi, a Serb, and a U.S. citizen.

Plate also said the vast majority of the 32 criminal acts documented by police were tied to theft and bodily injury. Three were tied to sexual assaults.

On Thursday, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said any asylum-seekers among the suspects could be deported, if they are tried and sentenced to a year or more in prison. That sentence would be possible in the case of the sex crimes.

Arab or N. African origin

Police say about 1,000 men, most of "Arab or North African origin" had gathered near Cologne's main train station around midnight throwing fireworks. After police moved in to break up the revelry, smaller groups of men began surrounding women passing through the area, groping and harassing them and stealing their belongings.

A plainclothes police woman says she was among those attacked.

About 90 people have filed criminal complaints, including one report of a rape.

The DPA news agency reports that three suspects are being investigated.

Both Justice Minister Maas and Chancellor Angela Merkel have condemned the assaults and called for the perpetrators to be punished.

Police in the German cities of Hamburg and Stuttgart have said similar crimes were committed during New Year's Eve festivities, but to a lesser extent.

The assaults have intensified the debate over Germany's immigration policies.

Some 1.1 million people registered as asylum seekers in Germany in 2015.