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Manhunt for Berlin attacker continues; police treating assault as act of terorism

Police: Berlin attacker remains on the run

December 20, 2016

The manhunt for perpetrators of the attack on Christmas market in Berlin at killed at least 12 continues as Germany officials said they cannot rule out that suspects involved could still be at large.

Peter Frank, the country’s top prosecutor, said Tuesday investigators are treating the attack on the market outside Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church that also seriously injured more than 30 as an act of terrorism, though no group has claimed responsibility yet.

He said the suspect in custody – identified as a Pakistani asylum-seeker who has denied any involvement – “may not have been the perpetrator or belong to the group of perpetrators.”

The announcement comes just hours after police sources told the country’s Die Welt newspaper that they had the “wrong man” and that the true perpetrator “is still armed, at large and can cause fresh damage.”

Frank said the method used in the rampage was reminiscent of July’s truck attack in Nice, France, and of the new “modius operandi” used my Islamic extremist groups.

Holger Muench, head of Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office, said they have not yet found a pistol believed used to kill the truck’s passenger.

For those reasons, he said, we are “naturally on high alert and are investigating in all directions.”

Six out of the 12 people killed have been identified and are all Germans, but he does not yet know whether the other six are as well, Muench added.

Berlin police urged people to remain “particularly vigilant” and to report “suspicious movement” to a special hotline.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere — Germany’s top security official — said Tuesday that authorities have “no doubt” that the attack was intentional.

He added that a man arrested in connection with the attack was a Pakistani man who had entered Germany on Dec. 31, 2015, and arrived in Berlin in February. De Maiziere said the man had applied for asylum and denied to police that he was involved.

The man was identified only as 23-year-old Naved B. He was picked up around 1 1/2 miles away from the scene of the attack.

Der Tagesspiegel reported that the man was known to police for multiple minor offenses, but had not made the radar of anti-terror authorities. The dpa press agency reported that the suspect used multiple names, making it difficult for authorities to confirm his actual identity.

The truck struck a popular Christmas market packed with holiday shoppers outside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial late Monday as tourists and locals were enjoying a traditional pre-Christmas evening out near Berlin’s Zoo station.

“All police measures concerning the suspected terror attack at Breitscheidplatz are being taken with great speed and the necessary care,” Berlin police said on Twitter.

The crash came less than a month after the U.S. State Department called for caution in markets and other public places across Europe, saying extremist groups including Islamic State and Al Qaeda were focusing “on the upcoming holiday season and associated events.”

The Islamic State and Al Qaeda have both called on followers to use trucks in particular to attack crowds. On July 14, a truck plowed into Bastille Day revelers in the southern French city of Nice, killing 86 people. Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack, which was carried out by a Tunisian living in France. No group had claimed responsibility for the Berlin attack as of early Tuesday.

Following the attack, dozens of ambulances lined the streets waiting to evacuate people, and heavily armed police patrolled the area. Authorities on Twitter urged people to stay away from the scene, saying they need to keep the streets clear for rescue vehicles.

Among the dead was a passenger in the truck, who succumbed as paramedics treated him, Berlin police spokesman Winfried Wenzel said. Police said later that the man was a Polish national, but didn’t give further details of who he was or what happened to him.

The truck used in the attack was registered in Poland, and police said it was believed to be stolen from a building site there. They didn’t give a specific location.

The revelations about the attacker’s identity are likely to heap more pressure onto German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose decision to accept waves of migrants from Africa and the Middle East has stoked controversy and unsettled Germany and Europe.

In Tuesday press conference, Merkel said she is “shocked, shaken and deeply saddened” by the attack. She had told reporters that it would be “particularly sickening” if it’s confirmed the attack was an asylum-seeker who sought refuge in Germany.

The Polish owner of the truck said he feared the vehicle, driven by his cousin, may have been hijacked. Ariel Zurawski said he last spoke with the driver around noon, and the driver told him he was in Berlin and scheduled to unload Tuesday morning. “They must have done something to my driver,” he told TVN24.

For several hours, the truck was started and stopped as if the driver was learning how to use the vehicle and finally pulled away at around 7:14 p.m. local time. By about 8:14 p.m., the truck had plowed into a group of people as it headed the wrong way on a street and then onto a sidewalk.

Federal prosecutors, who handle terrorism cases, took over the investigation, according to German Justice Minister Heiko Maas. In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the United States was in contact with German officials and ready to help in the investigation and response.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump blamed Islamist terrorists, though it was unclear what that assessment was based on. He said Islamic extremists must be “eradicated from the face of the earth” and pledged to carry out that mission with all “freedom-loving partners.”

Germany has not experienced any mass-casualty attacks by Islamic extremists, but has been increasingly wary since two attacks by asylum-seekers in the summer that were claimed by ISIS. Five people were wounded in an ax rampage on a train near Wuerzburg and 15 in a bombing outside a bar in Ansbach, both in the southern state of Bavaria. Both attackers were killed.

Those attacks, and two others unrelated to Islamic extremism in the same weeklong period, helped stoke tensions in Germany over the arrival last year of 890,000 migrants.