German investigators intensified their search for the perpetrator of a deadly truck assault on a Christmas market in Berlin after an initial suspect was released, deepening the fear and uncertainty over what Chancellor Angela Merkel called a terrorist act.
The manhunt comes after a Pakistani asylum seeker was detained and let go because authorities said the evidence at this point doesn’t strongly suggest the man committed the crime. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere indicated the assailant was still on the run as Islamic State said on its Amaq news agency that one of its followers carried out the attack that killed 12 people.
“From the beginning, the police and investigators were not just following this lead, but were pursuing other leads from the beginning,” he told ZDF. “So it’s indeed the case that it can’t be ruled out that the assailant is at large. And so the case is being investigated urgently.”
The prospect of one or more terrorist suspects still on the loose puts further pressure on Merkel to guarantee the German public’s security as she seeks re-election to a fourth term next year.
“This is a very difficult day,” Merkel, dressed in black, said in a nationally televised statement Tuesday. “Like millions of people in Germany, I am horrified, shocked and deeply saddened by what happened yesterday evening on Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz.”
Even as she laid a white rose for the victims at the cordoned-off crime scene, the Alternative for Germany party and other European anti-immigrant parties pointed the finger at Merkel.
“Terrible news from Berlin but no surprise,” Nigel Farage, former leader of the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party, said on Twitter. “Events like these will be the Merkel legacy.”
Security officials earlier in the day began to voice doubt that they had caught the perpetrator, saying the suspect had disputed the accusations. As officials ordered all Christmas markets in the capital closed for the day, German Federal Police head Holger Muench had more bad news.
“At this point in the investigation, we have one suspect, but aren’t certain whether he is in fact the assailant,” he told reporters. “We also don’t know whether there was only one assailant. The crime weapon hasn’t been found. All of that means that we’re on high alert –- and of course will investigate in every direction to identify and apprehend any persons who may be involved.”
Forty-five people were injured in the attack, 30 of them seriously, Frank said. Police were collecting pictures and videos from witnesses who were on Breitscheidplatz, located near Berlin’s upscale Kurfuerstendamm shopping boulevard, when the truck barreled through wooden stands, festive lights and Christmas trees on Monday. Frank said several signs pointed to terrorism.
“This is reminiscent of the attack in Nice,” he said. “Another reason is the prominent and symbolic target of a Christmas market and the modus operandi, which reflects previous calls to action by jihadist groups.”
Merkel’s open-door refugee policy of last year polarized voters and fed support for Alternative for Germany, known as the AfD. While the influx of asylum seekers has declined substantially this year, the Berlin deaths threaten to further undermine the chancellor’s standing.
“Germany is no longer safe,” AfD co-chairwoman Frauke Petry said in a statement. “We must be under no illusions. The breeding ground in which such acts can flourish has been negligently and systematically imported over the past year and a half.”
While President Barack Obama sent condolences and pledged U.S. help in the investigation, Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch-based Freedom Party, posted an image of Merkel with her face and hands spattered with blood.
Leaders across the region are being buffeted by an unprecedented combination of Islamic terrorism and political violence whose origins are complex and to which there is no obvious answer.
In western Europe, which holds a string of crucial elections next year, Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and other leaders are struggling to persuade the public that they can ensure security. The assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey on Monday by a gunman pledging vengeance for the fall of Aleppo shows how the chaos in Syria is spreading.
Here are some details that have emerged of the carnage. A Polish-registered black Scania semi-truck plowed into the pre-holiday scene at about 8 p.m. Monday near the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church. Witnesses saw a man get out of the cab and gave chase; police apprehended the man suspected of driving the truck several hundred meters away.
De Maiziere described the man in custody as a Pakistan national who entered the country as an asylum seeker in December 2015. Federal prosecutors ordered his release less than 24 hours later.
Other clues raised even more questions. A Polish national tentatively identified as the truck’s original driver was found dead in the passenger seat from an apparent gunshot wound, according to authorities. No weapon was found.
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