A truck slammed into a crowded Christmas market in central Berlin on Monday night, killing at least 12 people and wounding 48, in what authorities are investigating as a possible terrorist attack.
The passenger in the truck died in the crash and the suspected driver was arrested near the scene, police said.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas said investigation of the case has been handed over to federal prosecutors, who handle terrorism cases. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told ARD television that authorities were still investigating and did not want to use the word attack, but signs pointed to everyone’s worst fears.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘attack’ yet at the moment, although a lot points to it,” de Maiziere said. “There is a psychological effect in the whole country of the choice of words here, and we want to be very, very cautious and operate close to the actual investigation results, not with speculation.”
The Scania-brand truck plowed up to 80 meters (260 feet) into the Christmas market near the iconic Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, along the Kurfürstendamm shopping mile, at around 8:30 p.m. local time as people were getting off work in the busy shopping district just days before Christmas.
DW correspondent Kyra Levine in Berlin reported that ambulances took the wounded away and streets were closed off, turning a normally bustling area into an eerily calm scene of empty streets as police urged people to stay home.
The truck had Polish license plates and was carrying steel beams. The dead passenger in the truck has been identified as a Polish national, according to police. The Polish owner of the trucking company, Ariel Zurawski, told TVN 24 television that his cousin worked for him and that he couldn’t be reached since around 4 p.m. local time.
Zurawski told the broadcaster there was no way his cousin carried out the attack. “Something must have been done to him,” he said.
The nationality of the suspected driver in custody is still unknown, but German news agencies “Die Welt” and dpa cited security sources as saying the arrested man was an asylum seeker from Pakistan or Afghanistan. They said he had arrived in Germany in February.
An employee of Zurawski, who spoke to DW on condition of anonymity, said the truck was on its way from Poland to deliver steel to a ThyssenKrupp site in Italy before they lost contact with the assigned driver. According to the shipping company’s GPS tracking, from 5 p.m. the truck was at a standstill in the northern Berlin suburb of Wedding for about two hours.
Europe on high alert
The likely attack, one of biggest to hit Germany in more than a decade, comes as Europe is on high alert following a string of terrorist attacks in France and Belgium over the past year. Although no group has claimed responsibility for the incident in Berlin, the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) has previously called on its followers to carry out terror strikes in Europe.
“Even though IS is now greatly weakened as an organization it is still able to inspire terrorists in the West,” Max Abrahms, a terrorism theorist at Northeastern University in the United States, told DW. “Everyday items like cars and trucks can be very lethal, making counterterrorism extraordinarily difficult.”
The apparent terrorist attack comes after Germany has taken in more than 1 million refugees over the past two years, raising questions over the country’s ability to handle such a large number of newcomers. The influx has sparked security concerns and forced the government to heighten security measures ahead of federal elections in 2017, in which Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies are expected to be a central issue.
German authorities have foiled several planned attacks recently, arresting dozens of alleged Islamists. In early October, a Syrian refugee was detained for allegedly planning to bomb a Berlin airport. The suspect, Jaber Albakr, later killed himself while in custody.
In July, a suspected 17-year-old Afghan refugee wielding an ax and knife wounded five people on a train in Bavaria before being shot dead by police. Days later, a Syrian asylum seeker claiming to act in the name of IS blew himself up at a festival in the southern city of Ansbach, wounding 15 people.
Around the same time, an 18-year-old German-Iranian gunman killed nine people at a shopping mall in Munich before committing suicide. Authorities said the young man, who had planned the attack for a year, was “obsessed” with mass murders and had no links to the IS group.
Earlier this month, a 12-year-old was arrested for allegedly assembling a homemade nail bomb he tried to explode at a Christmas market in the western city of Ludwigshafen.
© Deutsche Welle