Berlin Christmas market attack ‘affects all Europe’

A candle and flowers are seen near the site where a truck ploughed through a crowd at a Berlin Christmas market in west Berlin. [Reuters]

French President François Hollande and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker sent the German people their sympathies after a truck plowed into a crowded Christmas market in central Berlin yesterday evening (19 December) killing 12 people in what police this morning described as “an attack”.

German police said they had taken one suspect into custody and that another passenger from the truck had died as it crashed into people gathered around wooden huts serving mulled wine and sausages at the foot of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church in the heart of former West Berlin.

Police officials this morning (20 December) were describing the incident as an “attack”, saying the driver had “intentionally” run into the crowd.

The nationality of the suspected driver, who fled the crash scene and was later arrested, was unclear, police added. German media cited local security sources as saying that there was evidence suggesting the arrested suspect was from Afghanistan or Pakistan and entered Germany in February as a refugee.

Pictures from the scene showed Christmas decorations protruding from the smashed windscreen of the black truck. In the aftermath, it was resting lopsided on the pavement with a mangled Christmas tree beneath its wheels.

Berlin police said on Twitter they were investigating leads that the truck had been stolen from a construction site in Poland.

Similarity with Nice attack

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said the circumstances of the crash were still unclear, adding: “I don’t want to use the word ‘attack’ yet although a lot points to that.”

The incident 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. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by terror group Islamic State.

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“The French share the mourning of the Germans in the face of this tragedy which affects all Europe,” said French President François Hollande. “I express my solidarity and compassion to Chancellor Merkel, to the German people and to the families of the victims of Berlin,” he added.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker issued a statement in German, saying “My thoughts and those of the entire European Commission are among the families and relatives of all those who have been killed and injured in Berlin.

“This news shook us all the more because they had gathered there to celebrate the pre-Christmas season, which united many people with peace and quiet. We are connected with the victims in deep sorrow. We want the strength of the numerous helpers and forces of action for this difficult night.”

European Council President Donald Tusk said he was deeply saddened and that Europe “stands ready to help”.

Trump points finger at ‘Islamist terrorists’

US President-elect Donald Trump condemned what he called an attack, linking it to “Islamist terrorists” before German police officials had said who was responsible.

The White House also condemned what it called “what appears to have been a terrorist attack”.

In recent years, Germany has not suffered a large-scale attack from Islamist militants like those seen in neighbouring Belgium and France.

But it was shaken by two smaller attacks in Bavaria over the summer, one on a train near Würzburg and another at a music festival in Ansbach that wounded 20 people. Both were also claimed to have been carried out by Islamic State.

And government officials have said the country, which accepted nearly 900,000 migrants last year, many from the war-torn Middle East, lies in the “crosshairs of terrorism”.

In mid-October, police arrested a Syrian refugee suspected of planning a bomb attack on an airport in Berlin. The 22-year-old man committed suicide in prison shortly after his arrest.

People urged to stay away

A government spokesman said Chancellor Angela Merkel was briefed on the situation by de Maizière and Berlin’s mayor. Police said there were no indications of further dangerous situations in the area but urged people to stay away from the scene.

“I’m deeply shaken about the horrible news of what occurred at the memorial church in Berlin,” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

The truck veered into the market around 8pm, normally a crowded time when adults and children would be gathering in the traditional cluster of wooden huts that sell food and Christmas goods in an annual celebration replicated across Germany and much of Central Europe.

Ariel Zurawski, whose Polish freight company owns the truck, said the driver of the truck did not work for him.

“It wasn’t my driver,” Zurawski told Polish private broadcaster TVN 24. “I vouch for him. He’s my cousin.”

The incident took place near a famous Berlin landmark, the Gedächtniskirche or memorial church, built in 1891-95, which was left a ruin with a jagged tower after it was damaged in World War Two bombing raids as a monument to peace and reconciliation.

Police cars and ambulances converged quickly on the scene.

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