- - Tuesday, December 20, 2016

BERLIN — The day after a truck plowed into a shopper-filled Christmas market, killing a dozen people and wounding dozens more, Germany continued to grapple with the aftermath: the shock of the attack, identifying the victims, tracking suspected links to Islamic terrorist groups, and debating whether the open-door asylum policy of Chancellor Angela Merkel shares some of the blame.

With investigators’ release Tuesday of the prime initial suspect in the rampage, a young Pakistani asylum-seeking refugee who arrived in the country barely a year earlier, Berliners were living with the terrifying fear that the killer or killers were still at large, armed and capable of striking again.

The political fallout could fall most heavily on Ms. Merkel, who faced renewed criticism for her liberal immigration policies even as she made an emotional visit with German President Joachim Gauck to the site of the atrocity in the plaza in front of the historic Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.

“Like millions of people in Germany, I am horrified, shaken and deeply saddened by what happened last night in Berlin,” Ms. Merkel said. “Much of what we know about these events is still uncertain, but as things stand, we have to assume that this was an act of terrorism. I know that it would be especially difficult for us all if it turns out that the person who committed this act had asked for protection and asylum in Germany.”

On Tuesday evening, German police said they were still hunting for the perpetrator of the attack after releasing a 23-year-old Pakistani identified only as Naved B., who was seen leaving the scene of the massacre at Breitscheidplatz in west Berlin before being apprehended a mile away Monday evening.

Eyewitnesses initially notified police that they had seen a man matching Naved B.’s description exit the truck after it plowed through pedestrians, killing 12 and injuring almost 50 people enjoying the shopping, snacks and festivities of a traditional Christmas market.

But after a DNA search, prosecutors announced that it didn’t appear the “accused was present in the cab of the truck during the event.”

With no other suspects in custody, the perpetrator of the likely terrorist attack is still at large, police said, as they mounted a massive manhunt that included raiding the shelter where Naved B. lived a few miles away from the Christmas market.

Complicating the picture was an unconfirmed report that the Islamic State group was claiming credit for the attack, which closely mirrored a July 14 massacre in Nice, France, by a radicalized Tunisian immigrant.

The Islamic State group’s Amaq news agency said in a statement Tuesday that “the person who carried out the truck run over attack in Berlin is a soldier of the Islamic State and carried out the attack in response to calls for targeting citizens of the Crusader coalition,” The Associated Press reported.

Germany is not involved in combat operations against the Islamic State, but it does have Tornado jets and a refueling plane stationed in Turkey in support of the coalition fighting militants in Syria, as well as a frigate protecting a French aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.

German officials said there was no way to determine the truth of the Islamic State claim, and State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that U.S. authorities had no more intelligence information about the attacker’s motivations than the Germans.

“There is no direct evidence of a tie or a link to a terrorist organization, but this bears the hallmarks of previous terror attacks,” Mr. Kirby said.

Countries across Western Europe reported tightening security procedures in the wake of the event, especially for large public events. Ms. Merkel has spoken to President Obama and the leaders of France, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Poland, Sweden and Spain since Monday evening, the German government reported.

Politicians and Berliners alike were anxious as authorities incrementally released details of the attack. Still, police confirmed early Tuesday that the truck was owned and operated by a Polish shipping company and was heading back to Poland from Italy when it was hijacked.

The driver, a cousin of the company’s manager, was supposed to stop in Berlin to unload a shipment of steel beams before heading back to Poland. The manager told German media that the company lost contact with the driver hours before the truck reached the outdoor Christmas market.

A dead passenger was found in the demolished truck. Police confirmed early Tuesday that he had been shot in the head and that he had Polish citizenship.

Those details had some officials resolute that the disaster was terror-related, even before Islamic State operatives issued their claim of responsibility.

“We no longer have any doubts that last night’s horrible events were an attack,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said.

As a result, the massacre has compounded rising fears in Germany about Muslim refugees after mass assaults in Cologne last New Year’s Eve and terrorist attacks this summer, as well as a thwarted attack this month on another Christmas market by a radicalized 12-year-old boy in Ludwigshafen.

Merkel under fire

Chancellor Merkel, who plans to seek a fourth term in office next fall, faces increased pressure from within her ruling Christian Democratic Party — many of whom opposed her open-door policy that allowed nearly 1 million refugees to enter Germany last year — as well as from the far right.

Klaus Bouillon, the CDU interior minister of the German state of Saarland, took what appeared to be a thinly veiled shot at the chancellor in an interview Tuesday morning with German broadcaster SR.

“We must say that we are in a state of war, although some people, who always only want to see good, do not want to see this,” Mr. Bouillon said.

Ms. Merkel’s “perception and reputation have been greatly diminished by the refugee crisis,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst in Berlin and former professor at the Free University of Berlin. “The anxiety within Merkel’s CDU is related to her failure to back down from her refugee policy.”

Ms. Merkel, who once portrayed herself as a bastion of liberal European values in a time of uncertainty and reaction on the Continent, has since backtracked on the scope of her policy, giving into deportation schemes, implementing a refugee exchange program with Turkey and even recently backing a public ban on the wearing of the burqa. Still, she has remained resolute in her mantra of proceeding with the uphill process of integrating newcomers into the fold.

This comes much to the dismay of more conservative wings of her party, as well as her coalition partner, the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union, that seek to implement quotas on refugees, especially in the wake of multiple violent crimes in Germany this year in which asylum seekers were involved.

At the same time, analysts say, that is opening the door for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which this year has had a surge of support and won seats in multiple local elections.

Frauke Petry, co-leader of the AfD, which has gained momentum over the past years by criticizing Ms. Merkel’s refugee policies, said Tuesday that “Germany is no longer safe.”

The carnage was “not just an attack on our freedom and on our way of life but also on our Christian tradition,” the AfD leader said.

More politicians likely will be rushing to take advantage of the situation.

“The usual suspects, even those firmly within the democratic spectrum, are saying, ‘I told you so,’” said Olaf Boehnke, an analyst with the Alfred Von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies in Berlin. “There are a lot of political forces trying to cash in on this.

“This is a turning point in German society: We’re realizing that our cozy existence is over,” he said. “We know now that we have enemies and we have to face them.”

The Muslim Coordination Council, an umbrella group for Germany’s Muslim community, said in a statement Tuesday that terrorism “does not stop in the face of innocent people and what is sacred to people.” The group said it was “deeply shocked and condemn[ed] the cowardly attack in the strongest terms.”

Meanwhile, Berliners were shocked, even though some said they had been bracing for such an attack after those in southern Germany this year as well as in neighboring France.

“I can’t shake myself of the feeling that we’re facing dangerous times,” said Martin, 36, a postdoctorate candidate based in Berlin who declined to give his last name. “Fear and powerlessness are taking hold of people’s hearts, but it’s important to remind ourselves to stand up for the liberal democratic values we cherish in this society.”

Mourners left flowers at impromptu memorials that sprung up on the perimeter of the market. Others attended a candlelight vigil in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at midday to pray and pay their respects to the victims. The city observed a moment of silence later Tuesday. Christmas markets across town, a German holiday tradition and a major draw for local residents and tourists alike, closed in the early afternoon to honor the victims.

Still, some said they would try to go about their lives even if they feared more attacks to come.

“It feels like Germany is in the eye of the storm,” said Nikoleta Stavroulaki, 31, a personal assistant who is traveling to Munich for the holidays. “I’m afraid they’ll attack again on Christmas. There’s no way I’m going to go to the big Munich Mall.”

Still, she said, “These things may happen, but I also have shopping to do, so I assume I’ll go.”

Nikolia Apostolou contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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