BERLIN (AFP) — German police launched a manhunt Wednesday for a Tunisian suspected of driving the truck that plowed through a Berlin Christmas market in a deadly assault claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.
Twelve people were killed when the Polish-registered articulated truck, laden with steel beams, slammed into the crowded holiday market on Monday, smashing wooden stalls and crushing victims.
Media reports said asylum office papers believed to belong to the man were found in the cab of the 40-ton truck used in the attack that killed 12 people.
The man is in his early 20s, known by three different names, and was born in the southern city of Tataouine, the reports said.
— BILD (@BILD) December 21, 2016
Police were reportedly searching for the suspect in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
“We can’t rule out that the perpetrator is on the run,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere earlier told public broadcaster ZDF.
He applied for asylum in Germany in April and received a temporary residence permit, according to the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
A previous suspect — a 23-year-old Pakistani asylum seeker — was released late Tuesday for lack of evidence, prompting fears of a killer on the loose and further rattling nerves in a shocked country.
Twenty-four people remain hospitalized, 14 of whom are seriously injured, according to de Maiziere.
The scenes instantly revived nightmarish memories of the July 14 truck assault in the French Riviera city of Nice, where 86 people were killed by a Tunisian Islamist.
The IS-linked Amaq news agency said “a soldier of the Islamic State” carried out the Berlin carnage “in response to appeals to target citizens of [anti-IS] coalition countries.”
There was no evidence to back the claim, nor was the perpetrator identified.
Germany is part of a US-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria.
De Maiziere said several lines of inquiry were being pursued, but “we should let the security services do their job.”
“No-one will rest until the perpetrator or perpetrators have been caught,” he told ARD public television.
The attack comes at a sensitive time for Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is running for a fourth term in 2017 but has faced strong criticism over her decision last year to open the country’s borders to refugees.
‘New suspect very soon’
In a blow to investigators, federal prosecutors announced they had to release the only suspect in custody after finding no forensic evidence to link him to Germany’s deadliest attack in recent years.
The Pakistani man was arrested late Monday after he was reportedly seen jumping out of the truck and fleeing the scene.
But officials had expressed growing doubts over whether they had the right suspect in custody, and he denied the charges under repeated questioning.
“We may have a dangerous criminal in the area,” Berlin’s police chief Klaus Kandt said, adding that security would be boosted while urging “heightened vigilance.”
Following the suspect’s release, Kandt told ARD television “one or more” perpetrators were believed to be on the run and possibly armed.
Police said they were chasing up more than 500 tips from the public and examining DNA traces found in the cab of the truck.
“I am fairly confident that we will have a new suspect tomorrow or very soon,” the head of the BDK police union, Andre Schulz, told ZDF late Tuesday.
Images from the aftermath of the rampage showed the mangled truck with its windscreen smashed, a trail of destruction in its wake, while survivors recounted harrowing stories of near misses and bloody carnage.
Germany in mourning
A Polish man, killed by a gunshot, was found on the truck’s passenger seat, said de Maiziere. He was believed to be the original driver of the Polish-registered vehicle.
The 37-year-old Pole named Lukasz Urban worked for his cousin Ariel Zurawski’s transport company in northern Poland.
Zurawski described him as a “good guy” and said his body showed signs of a struggle with the assailant or assailants.
“One person would not have been able to overpower him,” Zurawski said of the relative he had grown up with, a heavyset man who weighed in at 120 kilograms (265 pounds) and stood 183 centimeters (six feet) tall.
“We could see injuries. His face was bloodied and swollen,” he told private news channel TVN 24, referring to a photo he received from Polish police.
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An autopsy indicated that the driver was still alive at the time of the attack, the German daily Bild reported.
Merkel visited the scene of the carnage for a minute’s silence on Tuesday and then joined a memorial service in the adjacent Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
Mourners placed flowers and candles at the site while German flags flew at half-staff.
Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate was lit in the national colours in honour of the victims, and foreign leaders, led by US President Barack Obama, sent their condolences.
Europe has been on high alert for most of 2016, following the bloody jihadist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and the coordinated bombings in Brussels in March.
In July, 15 people were injured in two attacks in the southern German state of Bavaria committed by asylum seekers and claimed by the Islamic State group.
The arrival of 890,000 refugees last year has polarized Germany, with critics calling the influx a serious security threat.
Opponents were quick to seize on the carnage as proof that Merkel’s liberal asylum policy had endangered the country.
Marcus Pretzell of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party labeled the Christmas market victims “Merkel’s dead.”