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COLOGNE, Germany (Reuters) - Undeterred by sexual attacks blamed on migrants on New Year's Eve, German women in clown costumes and bright wigs kicked off six days of carnival celebrations in Cologne on Thursday amid unusually heavy security.
Some 2,000 police were on duty, about double last year's number, after fierce criticism of the small force that was helpless on Dec. 31 when gangs of men - many said to be North African migrants - sexually attacked and robbed women revelers.
Floodlights and video cameras were installed in the center of the Rhineland city and sales of pepper spray cans were brisk before Weiberfastnacht (women's carnival), the traditional day when women take over their towns and symbolically castrate men by cutting off their ties.
A security point has been set up outside the twin-spired cathedral for women who feel threatened. Teams of people have been deployed around town to register any complaints.
"I don't think we should hold back. I think this is the safest carnival we've had for years and it'll never be this safe again," said Janina Lange, dressed as a brown cat with a painted face, in front of Cologne's landmark Gothic cathedral.
There were fewer "Jecken" (revelers) out in central Cologne on Thursday afternoon than last year, but rain may have kept some away. While it's traditionally the women's day for the festivities, there were many men in the crowd as well.
The attacks on women at New Year in Cologne and other cities exposed fears about the integration of the 1.1 million migrants who arrived last year, plus more this year, and about a possible clash of cultures with the mostly Muslim newcomers.
The federal BKA police was quoted by Die Welt daily as saying further sexual attacks were possible.
"We cannot be sure ... that the higher sensibility and tougher security measures will prevent a repeat of what happened previously," die Welt quoted a BKA analysis as saying, adding there was no higher risk of an Islamist attack at carnival.
In an attempt to explain to migrants the significance of German carnival, a highlight of the year in the country's mostly Catholic regions, local authorities have provided information pamphlets on it in languages including Arabic.
The festival is called the 'fifth season' in the Rhineland. Alcohol-fuelled parties with fancy dress, popular songs and dancing continue over the weekend, culminating in Rose Monday parades when floats roll through the streets of Cologne and other Rhineland cities such as Mainz and Duesseldorf.
Last year, about 1.5 million people turned out in Cologne for the parade, which features gaudy satirical floats poking fun at local and national politicians.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is losing popular support over her open-door refugee policy, is bound to be a target when the floats are unveiled on Monday.
In an unusual display of unruliness, revelers symbolically storm town halls and chase mayors out of their offices.
"It is important that we don't have our fun taken away. Our carnival is our tradition and we must celebrate it just as we have done before" said Bjoern Braun, clad in a bright green, red and gold military uniform and hat in Cologne city center.
Carnival dates back to ancient times when the Germanic tribes celebrated it to chase away winter demons. Later, it was linked to the Christian festival of Lent, which starts next Wednesday.
The festive eating and drinking mark the final days before Christian start 40 days of fasting in the run-up to Easter.
Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Tom Heneghan