Investigators suspect the driver of a truck that ploughed into a crowd at a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 people and injuring 48, is a 23-year-old from Pakistan who committed the act intentionally in a terrorist attack, police said on Tuesday (20).
The truck crashed into people gathered on Monday (19) evening around wooden huts serving mulled wine and sausages at the foot of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church – left as a ruin after World War Two – in the heart of former West Berlin.
“Our investigators are working on the assumption that the truck was deliberately steered into the crowd at the Christmas market…,” police said on Twitter.
“All police measures related to the suspected terrorist attack at Breitscheidplatz are progressing at full steam and with the necessary diligence.”
It evoked memories of an attack in Nice, France in July when a Tunisian-born man drove a 19-tonne truck along the beach front, mowing down people who had gathered to watch the fireworks on Bastille Day, killing 86 people. That was claimed by Islamic State.
Bild newspaper cited security sources as saying the suspect in the Berlin incident was a man named Naved B. who arrived in Germany a year ago from Pakistan. In legal cases German officials routinely issue an initial for the surname rather than the full name.
On Tuesday morning the black truck was still visible at the site of the incident and a few candles and roses had been laid by the entrance to a nearby station. Flowers were being laid in the centre of the nearby Kurfuerstendamm, a prestigious shopping street. One woman was crying as she stopped by the flowers.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere had previously said there were indications that the incident was an attack.
Police said a Polish man was found dead in the truck but added he was not in control of the vehicle. The nationality of the suspected driver, who fled the crash scene and was later arrested, was unclear, they said.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter that the federal prosecutor had launched preliminary proceedings into the incident.
Local broadcaster rbb cited security sources as saying the arrested truck driver came to Germany via Passau, a city on the Austrian border, on Dec. 31, 2015. It cited the sources as saying the man was born on Jan. 1, 1993 in Pakistan and was already known to police for minor offences.
German newspaper Die Welt said police special forces stormed a hangar at Berlin’s defunct Tempelhof airport housing a refugee accommodation centre at around 4 a.m. (0300 GMT). It said, without citing its sources, that the arrested man was registered there.
A refugee there who gave his name only as Ahmed told reporters that security guards had told him there was a raid at around 4 a.m.
Prosecutors declined to immediately comment on the report.
If a migrant link is confirmed, it could further sour sentiment towards asylum seekers in Germany, where more than a million people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere have arrived this year and last.
The record influx has hit Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity ratings and boosted support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD). Senior AfD member Marcus Pretzell blamed Merkel for the attack on Twitter.
Manfred Weber, head of the centre-right European People’s Party, said: “It’s not an attack on a country; it’s an attack on our way of life, on the free society in which we are allowed to live.”
Stephan Mayer, a senior member of the Christian Social Union – the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats, told broadcaster ZDF it was necessary to ensure that there were no copycat attacks.
Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said on ORF radio on Tuesday that he had told the heads of Austria’s regional police forces to intensify surveillance measures, although there was no concrete evidence that an incident was about to happen.
Sobotka also called for biometric and fingerprint checks to be introduced along the Balkan route to better control foreign jihadist fighters’ movements.
Berlin police are investigating leads that the truck had been stolen from a construction site in Poland. They have taken the truck for a forensic examination.
Flags will be hung at half-mast around Germany on Tuesday.