Police in the Austrian city of Innsbruck are searching for a group of men “of foreign appearance” in connection with a series of sexual assaults on women during New Year celebrations.
Nineteen women have so far come forward to identify themselves as victims of the assaults, which are reminiscent of the Cologne sex attacks of New Year’s Eve in 2015.
The women said they had been harassed by groups of up to ten men in the city centre, Ernst Kranebitter, a spokesman for the local police, said.
The men encircled the women then grabbed their breasts or put their hands between the women’s legs.
The incidents left Innsbruck, a deeply conservative city of some 130,000 people amid the high Alps of western Austria, in shock.
“This has never happened to us before,” Ch Insp Kranebitter said. “It has definitely been proved that the men are foreign. We are investigating.”
The women described their attackers as of foreign appearance, with dark skin. Some were bearded while others were not. One of the men was missing a tooth.
The attacks took place in and around the Market Square in the heart of the Alpine city between 11.30pm and 1.30am, when the area was most crowded.
There is video footage of some of the attacks from a private security camera, but it is of poor quality and the suspects cannot be identified.
“We have videos of poor quality but we are trying to make the most of them,” the police spokesman said.
Victims also took a number of photographs of the men using their mobile phones, but the images are poorly lit and blurred.
Police have CCTV cameras in the city centre but they are only used for live surveillance and no recordings are made.
Most of the victims were women aged between 19 and 25. They include four local women, three Italians, two Germans, a Swiss woman and a visitor from another area of Austria.
One local mother came forward to say that her 17-year-old daughter had been attacked together with three of her friends.
An Italian man from the region of South Tyrol, just across the border, said his 18-year-old daughter and a friend had been assaulted.
Police believe all the attacks were carried out by the same group of men. The attacks were “systematic”, with the victims being pushed away or otherwise separated from their groups.
The incidents evoke immediate parallels with the Cologne sex attacks, in which more than 1,200 women were assaulted, more than 500 of them sexually, while trying to celebrate the New Year in the heart of the city.
In Cologne, as in Innsbruck, crowds of men gathered in the city centre and deliberately encircled women, cutting them off from their male companions.
Again, in Cologne as in Innsbruck, details of the assaults did not emerge for some days after the New Year, as victims came forward.
German police believe the overwhelming majority of the perpetrators in the Cologne attacks were economic migrants from North Africa, many of them posing as asylum-seekers.
The New Year passed off peacefully in Cologne this year without reports of mass sexual assaults.
Police in the city were accused of racial profiling after they detained some 650 men of North African origin as they tried to head into the city centre.
But the Cologne police chief defended his officers, insisting they were acting on intelligence that known suspects were hearing for the city.