A Pakistani asylum seeker was on Tuesday detained for mowing down Christmas shoppers in a crowded market in the heart of Berlin with a large truck, killing at least 12 people and injuring nearly 50 others even as authorities retracted later saying he may not be behind the “terror attack”.
The 23-year-old Pakistani man, identified by German media as Naved B, was picked up from near the site and Chancellor Angela Merkel called the deadly rampage a “terrorist” attack likely committed by an asylum seeker, Berlin police chief said it was not clear if the man arrested was the driver of the vehicle.
He was released later in the day on the orders of the federal prosecutor.
“The forensic tests carried out so far did not provide evidence of the accused’s presence during the crimes in the cab of the lorry,” office of the federal prosecutor.
The police said the “dangerous criminal” responsible for the country’s first mass ‘terror attack’ in recent years may still be at large, sparking concerns of a potential threat ahead of Christmas.
“It is indeed uncertain he was the driver,” Berlin police chief Klaus Kandt told reporters about the suspect as interrogation and forensic examination was underway.
According to police, the armed real perpetrator is still at large “and can cause new damage”.
The large black truck, bearing a Polish number plate and laden with steel girds, rammed into the traditional Christmas market in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, one of the main landmarks of the city, shortly after 8 pm (local time) as hundreds of people were milling around the shops and stands.
The vehicle rolled about 50 to 80 metres into the market area at the major public square Breitscheidplatz popular with tourists, hitting a number of visitors and demolishing several shops.
At least 12 people were killed and 48 others injured, including 18 seriously as the driver mounted the pavement with the speeding truck, crushing people and triggering panic, in gory scenes reminiscent of the July 14 Nice attack.
Police said the Scania truck belonged to a Polish transport company and they suspect it may have been stolen from a construction site.
Two persons were inside the driver’s cabin at time of the incident, police said, adding that while the driver jumped out of the vehicle after it came to a halt and fled from the scene, a body of a Polish national was found inside the truck.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere earlier confirmed reports that the suspect is Pakistani and had arrived in Germany on December 31, 2015, seeking asylum.
He, however, “denies the act”, de Maiziere said. “We have no doubt that this terrible event was an attack.”
A visibly moved Merkel, dressed in black, had earlier said authorities believe the deadly rampage was a “terrorist” attack likely committed by an asylum seeker as she pledged the harshest punishment for the “terror” attack.
“I know it will be especially hard for us to take if it is confirmed that the person who committed this attack sought protection and asylum in Germany,” she told reporters. The act would be punished “as hard as our laws require”.