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Berlin attack suspect's fingerprints in truck suggest he drove it

Berlin attack suspect's fingerprints in truck suggest he drove it
An alert distributed in Europe warns authorities to be on the lookout for Tunisian national Anis Amri, who is a suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack. (Associated Press)

Fingerprints matching a fugitive Tunisian refugee were found Thursday inside the truck that plowed into a Berlin Christmas market this week, killing 12 people. The discovery has left investigators all but certain that the suspect, who remains at large and is “armed and dangerous,” was behind the wheel during the worst terror attack the country has seen in decades. 

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters that investigators found fingerprints belonging to Anis Amri, the subject of a European-wide manhunt since Wednesday.

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Amri's wallet and ID had already been found inside the truck's cabin, where police said a vicious knife fight with the Polish driver had taken place. Authorities believe Amri first injured the Polish driver with a knife before shooting him to death at the end of the rampage that also left 48 people injured.

“The suspect’s fingerprints have been found in the cockpit of the truck,” de Maiziere told reporters, who accompanied Chancellor Angela Merkel on a visit to the government's anti-terror center in Berlin. “There are also other highly probable indications that the suspect is indeed the assailant,” he added, a day after warning against jumping to conclusions that Amri had been the attacker. “That’s why it’s all the more important that this manhunt succeeds as quickly as possible. We’re very much hoping that will be the case.”

The federal prosecutor's office issued a warrant for Amri's arrest Thursday. It had earlier described him as armed and dangerous, and offered a 100,000-euro ($104,000) reward for information leading to his capture.

Heavily armed police commandos staged early morning raids at several locations Amri had frequented in the past, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia and Berlin's Kreuzberg, Moabit and Prenzlauer Berg districts. A mosque in Berlin and a passenger bus near the southern town of Heilbronn were also searched.

Merkel paid tribute to police detectives for their work in quickly identifying the suspect, even though authorities have been blamed for failing to deport Amri, a man with a long criminal record who was designated for deportation back to Tunisia.

"I'm proud of the way that the vast majority of people have reacted with such prudence in recent days," Merkel told reporters.

Since the attack, Merkel has been hit with sharp criticism from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party over her open-door policies that allowed more than a million refugees into the country during the last 16 months. Facing a difficult election in September where she will attempt to win a fourth term, Merkel has lost considerable support over the last year because of her decision to allow in so many refugees and her staunch refusal of demands from the right-wing of her own party to accept limits on those numbers. Political analysts had long warned that support could crumble further if Germany were hit by a major terror attack.

Amri's request for asylum in Germany had been turned down in July, but he could not be deported because he did not have a Tunisian passport and Tunisia at first denied he was a citizen. Amri had also been on a watch list and under police surveillance for months after he was linked to radical Islamists in Germany.

Before coming to Germany, the young Tunisian had also been in jail for four years after helping set fire to a migrant center on the island of Lampedusa. He wound up there after fleeing from Tunisia in 2011, one of thousands of young Tunisians who made the journey during the Arab Spring.

Armin Laschet, a deputy leader in Merkel's conservative party, lamented a depressing lack of coordination between state officials and security agencies. "It looks like the thinking (in North Rhine-Westphalia) was 'he moved away to Berlin so the case is closed for us and the ball's in Berlin's court now'," Laschet told German radio.

In Italy, prison guards in six different Sicilian jails recall Amri as a violent and thuggish rebel who bullied fellow prisoners.

"When he was in the Pagliarelli jail in Palermo he was held in a cell on his own to avoid mixing with other prisoners because of his poor conduct which had led to fights with some inmates," said Donato Capece, the head of Italian prison guards' union SAPPE.

During his spell at Enna jail in Sicily in 2013, a group of volunteer actors enrolling prisoners for theater performances signed Amri up for a play, but were soon disillusioned.

"He was silent, polite and was given the task of playing the drums because he was so withdrawn," said actress Pierelisa Rizzo. Amri made it through rehearsals, but was shifted to another jail before the performance.

Amri's father, and one of his brothers, have said he was radicalized during his time in jail in Italy.

The young Tunisian was written up 12 times for offenses including intimidated other prisoners and trying to stoke rebellion in jails.

"He was held under strict supervision as a violent, riotous inmate, but he never showed signs of loyalty to the jihad in jail and did not frequent places of worship," Capece said.

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Tom Kington contributed reporting from Rome.

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UPDATES:

3:35 p.m.: This article was updated with details of an Italian prison service report.

1:43 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 10:00 a.m.

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