Cologne's mayor has been widely criticised for suggesting that women "keep at an arm's length" from strangers to avoid sexual harassment, after scores of women were sexually abused and mugged in the city during new year celebrations.

Asked by a journalist how women could protect themselves, Henriette Reker said: "There's always the possibility of keeping a certain distance of more than an arm's length – that is to say to make sure yourself you don't look to be too close to people who are not known to you, and to whom you don't have a trusting relationship".

The remarks came at a press conference at which Reker made her first public comments about the incidents on New Year's Eve. About 90 women made complaints to police, many relating to sexual assault. Many reported having been surrounded by groups of drunk and aggressive men of north African or Arabic appearance who harassed and mugged them. One woman is believed to have been raped.

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