BREAKING NEWS: German security services admit they have the WRONG man after arresting Pakistani asylum seeker, 23, over Berlin Christmas market massacre - and armed killer is still at large
BERLIN — The Pakistani national detained in connection with driving a truck into a Christmas market, killing 12 people and wounding dozens, may not have been involved in the attack, Berlin's police chief said Tuesday.
"We haven’t been able to confirm it yet," Klaus Kandt told reporters in Berlin, raising the prospect that a suspect could still be at large. The revelation came after Germany's Die Welt newspaper claimed the "wrong man" was in custody.
The truck smashed into crowds at a market of wooden huts and stands in front of Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church in central Berlin late Monday. German leader Angela Merkel said in a news conference Tuesday it was an "assumed terror attack."
The suspected driver fled the scene but was later detained. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the suspect, named by German news agency DPA as Naved B, 23, is from Pakistan and had applied for asylum in Germany.
The suspect denies involvement and there has been no claim of responsibility by the Islamic State or other extremist groups. At least 48 people were wounded in the incident, some with broken limbs and others with injuries requiring hospitalization. No information about the victims' ages or nationalities has been released.
If terrorism is confirmed, the attack will draw close comparison to an assault in July in Nice, France, where a truck slammed into people during Bastille Day celebrations, killing 86. Berlin would join Brussels and Paris as other European capitals where there have been attacks recently. And for Merkel there will be renewed scrutiny of her decision to allow almost a million asylum seekers to enter Germany, a move that's already brought her heavy criticism.
"Under the cloak of helping people Merkel has surrendered our domestic security,” Frauke Petry, of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, wrote on Facebook.
Merkel earlier said it would be particularly troubling if the attacker turned out to be an asylum seeker. "This would be especially despicable toward the many Germans who are daily engaged in helping refugees, and toward the many people who truly need this protection," she said, addressing the media.
The truck crashed into the market while it was packed with people enjoying the run up to Christmas. "I saw this huge black truck speeding through the markets crushing so many people and then all the lights went out and everything was destroyed," Trisha O'Neill, a witness, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"I could hear screaming and then we all froze," the Australian national said.
Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church is one of Berlin's most recognizable buildings. It was badly damaged during a World War II bombing raid. Its broken spire was left to stand and it has become known as a symbol of peace. The area in the vicinity of the incident is home to one of western Berlin's busiest shopping streets.
Investigators believe the truck, which was carrying steel beams, was stolen in Poland. It has Polish license plates and a man found dead in the passenger seat was a Polish national. Police think the dead passenger may have been the truck's original driver and the truck's owner said he feared the vehicle could have been hijacked.
The Polish victim was identified as Lukasz Urban, 37.
"I believe he would not give up the vehicle and would defend it to the end if were attacked," Lukasz Wasik, the manager of the trucking company where Urban worked, told Poland’s state broadcaster TVP.
While no one has claimed responsibility for Monday's incident, it comes as Europe has been on high alert for terrorist attacks inspired or coordinated by the Islamic State. Since July, Germany has experienced a number of small-scale attacks by Islamic militants who have used guns, axes and bombs, but no mass-casualty events. A few weeks ago, a 12-year-old dual German-Iraqi citizen failed to detonate a nail bomb at a Christmas market in Ludwigshafen, a city in western Germany.
Germany's interior ministry said Christmas markets in Germany should stay open as planned, although markets in Berlin would remain closed Tuesday. "Whatever we find out going forward about the exact background motive of the perpetrators, we must not and will not allow our free life to be taken away," de Maiziere said.