Berlin police said on Twitter on Tuesday that investigators assume that the driver of a truck that ploughed into a crowd at a Berlin Christmas market, killing at least 12 people and injuring 48 others, did so intentionally.
“Our investigators assume that the truck was deliberately steered into the crowd at the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz,” Berlin police said, calling it a suspected terrorist attack.
The black truck 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. Pictures from the scene showed Christmas decorations protruding from the smashed windscreen. 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.
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. That attack was claimed by the Islamic State.
U.S. 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 on Monday condemned what it called “what appears to have been a terrorist attack.”
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.
A suspect believed to be the driver was picked up about two kilometres away, near the Victory Column monument. He was being interrogated, Mr. Wenzel said.
The truck was registered in Poland.
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.
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.
Germany has not in recent years suffered a large-scale attack from Islamist militants such as 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 Wuerzburg and another at a music festival in Ansbach that wounded 20 people.
Both were claimed by the 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 died by suicide in prison shortly after his arrest.
A government spokesman said Chancellor Angela Merkel was briefed on the situation on Monday by Mr. de Maizière and the Berlin mayor.
Police said there were no indications of further dangerous situations in the area and 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.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘attack’ yet at the moment, although a lot speaks for it,” the Interior Minister, Mr. de Maizière, told ARD television.
“There is a psychological effect in the whole country of the choice of words here, and we want to be very, very cautious and operate close to the actual investigation results, not with speculation.”
Even so, some politicians were pointing fingers. Marcus Pretzell, a prominent member of the anti-migration Alternative for Germany party, lashed out at the government of Ms. Merkel, saying on Twitter: “When will the German state of law strike back? When will this cursed hypocrisy finally stop? These are Merkel’s dead! #Nice #Berlin.”
The truck veered into the market around 8 p.m., 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.
“We heard a loud bang,” Emma Rushton, a tourist, told CNN. “We started to see the top of an articulated truck, a lorry … just crashing through the stalls, through people.” She said the truck seemed to be travelling at about 65 kilometres an hour.
Mike Fox, visiting from Birmingham, England, told the Associated Press that the truck missed him by about three metres. Mr. Fox said he helped people who appeared to have broken limbs, and that others were trapped under Christmas stands.
“You do what you can to help who you can, really. It happened so fast that there was nothing we could do to stop it – if we’d tried to stop it we would have been crushed,” he said.
The incident took place near a famous Berlin landmark – the Gedaechtniskirche or memorial church built in 1891-95, which was left a ruin with a jagged tower as a monument to peace and reconciliation after it was damaged in bombing raids during the Second World War.
With a report from the Associated PressReport Typo/Error