Truck ploughs into Berlin Christmas market, killing at least 12

#Germany

Police arrest suspected driver, reportedly an asylum seeker, who had rammed into a crowded Christmas market

Crashed truck at a Christmas market on Breitscheidplatz Square in Berlin, 19 December 2016 (Reuters)
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Tuesday 20 December 2016 8:56 UTC
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A truck ploughed into a crowd at a Christmas market in the German capital Berlin on Monday evening, killing at least 12 people and injuring dozens, police said.

Local media, citing police at the scene, said first indications pointed to an attack on the market, situated at the foot of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church.

Security sources cited by DPA news agency said that the man behind the wheel was an asylum seeker from Afghanistan or Pakistan who arrived in Germany in February. 

The daily Tagesspiegel said the suspect was known to police but for minor crimes, not links to terrorism.

Police said they had taken the suspected driver into custody and that another passenger was found dead in the truck.

The truck involved in the incident belongs to a Polish transport company, which confirmed that its driver was missing. 

"We haven't heard from him since this afternoon," company owner Ariel Zurawski told AFP. "We don't know what happened to him. He's my cousin, I've known him since I was a kid. I can vouch for him."

But the Berlin state interior minister did not rule out the possibility that Monday's crash could be an accident, according to Reuters.

"It was definitely deliberate," a British tourist, who said the truck missed him by three metres, told AP. 

A government spokesman said Chancellor Angela Merkel was being briefed by her interior minister and the Berlin mayor on the situation. Police urged people to stay away from scene.

"I'm deeply shaken about the horrible news of what occurred at the memorial church in Berlin," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. "Many people who visited the Christmas market today have died and even more are injured."

The truck veered into the market at what would have been one of the most crowded times, 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."

'Safer than Paris'

Traditional Christmas markets are popular in cities and towns throughout Germany and have frequently been mentioned by security services as potentially vulnerable to attacks.

"It's awful. We were in Berlin for Christmas," said American tourist Kathy Forbes. "We also thought it would be safer than Paris."

The crash happened in the shadow of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church whose damage in a World War II bombing raid has been preserved as a warning to future generations.

The square is at the end of the Kurfuerstendamm boulevard which was packed with holiday shoppers.

Australian Trisha O'Neill told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation she was only metres from where the truck smashed into the crowded market.

"I just saw this huge black truck speeding through the markets crushing so many people and then all the lights went out and everything was destroyed.

"I could hear screaming and then we all froze. Then suddenly people started to move and lift all the wreckage off people, trying to help whoever was there."

O'Neill said there was "blood and bodies everywhere".

Police said the truck made it as far as 80 metres into the Christmas market before it came to a halt. 



Rescuers and police investigators inspect the truck (Reuters)

High Alert

Europe has been on high alert for most of 2016, with militant attacks striking Paris and Brussels, while Germany has been hit by several assaults claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group and carried out by asylum-seekers.

An axe rampage on a train in the southern state of Bavaria in July injured five people, and a suicide bombing wounded 15 people in the same state six days later. 

In another case, a 16-year-old German-Moroccan girl in February stabbed a police officer in the neck with a kitchen knife, wounding him badly, allegedly on IS orders.

The arrival of 890,000 refugees last year has polarised Germany, with critics calling the influx a serious security threat.

In response to the Berlin tragedy, France beefed up security at its own Christmas markets. 

"The French share in the mourning of the Germans in the face of this tragedy that has hit all of Europe," President Francois Hollande said.  

The United States labelled it an apparent "terrorist attack" and pledged its support.

"Germany is one of our closest partners and strongest allies, and we stand together with Berlin in the fight against all those who target our way of life and threaten our societies," White House National Security spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

While the identity and motive of the suspect were still unclear, US President-elect Donald Trump blamed "Islamist terrorists" who "slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad" for the incident.

"Our hearts and prayers are with the loved ones of the victims of today’s horrifying terror attack in Berlin," Trump said in a statement. "Innocent civilians were murdered in the streets as they prepared to celebrate the Christmas holiday."