German police think that the man from Pakistan who was arrested as a suspect in the attack on a Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people on Monday was not the actual perpetrator, Die Welt newspaper reported, citing senior security sources.
"We have the wrong man," said a senior police chief. "And therefore a new situation. The true perpetrator is still armed, at large and can cause fresh damage," the paper quoted the source as saying.
Police in the German capital said that 12 people died and 48 were injured, among them tourists, after a truck with Polish plates crashed into the market shortly before 8 p.m. on Monday near the Kurfuerstendamm in the heart of west Berlin.
"I don't want to use the term 'attack,' though there’s a lot that suggests that it is," German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said in an interview on ARD television.
Berlin police said that a suspect believed to be the driver was arrested after fleeing the scene and that a passenger in the truck was among the dead. German media including Die Welt newspaper reported that the driver was a refugee from Pakistan.
“Whether this was an intentional attack or an accident -- all of this is subject of the investigation,” Berlin police spokesman Thomas Neuendorf told reporters. “We don’t have firm evidence in one direction or the other.”
While police refused to speculate on any connection with terrorism, the incident is reminiscent of an attack in the French city of Nice in July, when more than 80 died after a truck plowed through late-night crowds celebrating Bastille Day. The deaths in the German capital threaten to further undermine Chancellor Angela Merkel’s domestic political standing going into an election year. Her open-door refugee policy of last year polarized voters and fed support for the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party.
“We mourn for the dead and hope that the many injured can be helped,” Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s chief spokesman, said in a Twitter statement. He added that the chancellor was in contact with her interior minister after hearing of the incident.
Police spokesman Neuendorf, speaking to reporters at the scene, said that the suspect was apprehended a few hundred meters from the market after descriptions were given by witnesses. There is no information on the suspect’s nationality, he said.
Images from the scene showed a dark Scania-brand truck with a Polish license plate, its windscreen smashed and its long trailer parked across the street where it had come to a standstill in front of the luxury Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
Politicians in the capital were quick to express their shock. Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary leader of the Social Democratic Party, which is part of Merkel’s governing coalition, said he was “horrified” and called the incident a deliberate attack. Julia Kloeckner, a vice chairwoman of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, told Bild newspaper that it was a “barbaric” act, adding that “terrorists are cowards.”
In the U.S., President-elect Donald Trump issued a statement saying that “our hearts and prayers are with the loved ones of the victims of today’s horrifying terror attack in Berlin.”
Germany suffered a spate of violent attacks in July that shook the public and sparked renewed criticism of Merkel’s migration policies. The four unconnected assaults over the summer -- a shooting spree, ax attack, suicide bombing and machete strike -- left 13 dead and sparked anxiety over terrorism.
Day of Violence
The Berlin deaths capped a day of violence in Europe, with the shooting dead of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey and three people injured in a shooting in a mosque near the main train station in Zurich.
Blaise Misztal, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s national security program in Washington, said the attacks in Ankara, Berlin and Zurich appeared to be “more coincidental than really connected.”
"There’s going to be a temptation” to connect them, Misztal said in a phone interview. "It’s going to feed into a temptation to weave a single narrative that this is Islamic terrorism coming out of Syria.” Yet this a “mistaken assessment,” as “it’s not a monolithic threat.”
In Berlin on Monday evening, police cordoned off the site, with police vans and cars parked around the main streets accessing the square and red and white tape blocking access for pedestrians and cars. Police with machine guns guarded the area near the Berlin zoo and the upscale KaDeWe department store. Fire engines and sirens could be heard wailing while people still strolled near the area of Europa Center, with its many shops and offices.
Wolfgang, a 62-year-old Berliner who didn’t want to give his last name, said he came out of the Europa shopping center next to the market shortly after the truck drove into the crowd.
“There were at least four people under the truck who looked badly injured,” he said. "Just an hour earlier I had been at the Christmas market and it was filled with so many happy people.” Despite the horrors, people remained the calm, he said. “There was no panic -- which really surprised me.”
The Breitscheidplatz is a large rectangular square in the heart of west Berlin adjacent to the main Ku’damm shopping mile that is among the busiest parts of the capital in the days before Christmas. The square is the site of the Kaiser-Wilhelm church whose ruined facade has been preserved to commemorate World War II and is a popular tourist destination.
Christmas markets are located across Berlin and are a common feature of German cities during the festive season, with vendors in wooden stalls typically selling everything from sausages to candles to pottery. De Maiziere said that there may need to be consequences for markets across Germany in light of the incident.
“This is a shock for us all,” Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller told journalists. “In these times, it’s truly difficult to experience something like our friends in other cities have experienced in recent months or years.”
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