German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed stricter laws to expel convicted refugees, as clashes erupted at far-right protests in Cologne over a rash of sexual assaults blamed on asylum seekers.

Cologne police said they have now recorded 379 cases of New Year's Eve violence -- ranging from groping to theft to two reported rapes -- with asylum seekers and illegal migrants making up the majority of suspects.

With anger growing at the scale of the attacks, supporters of the xenophobic PEGIDA movement marched in protests that briefly turned violent in the western city.

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