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Van's crash into a crowd in Germany kills 2, injures 20; police say driver killed himself

Van's crash into a crowd in Germany kills 2, injures 20; police say driver killed himself
People walk past police cars in Muenster, Germany, where several people were killed or injured when a car crashed into pedestrians on Saturday, April 7, 2018. (AFP / Getty Images)

A van that may have been carrying explosives was driven into a crowd of people in the western German college town of Muenster on Saturday, killing two people and injuring least 20, police said.

The driver of the vehicle shot himself and died at the scene, police said. He was described by police as a German man with possible psychological problems. Authorities said it was too soon to tell if the man was affiliated with any terror organizations.

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German media identified the man by his first name and surname initial — "Jens R" — as is the custom for individuals alleged to have committed a crime.

He was additionally described by German news magazine Der Spiegel on its website as a 48-year-old graphic designer. NTV television cited mental health episodes going back to 2016 and 2014.

According to several reports, the man lived just a few miles away from the scene of the incident.

 
  (Los Angeles Times)

Since there have been several attacks by Islamist extremists in Germany in recent years, some committed by refugees who arrived in Germany in waves since mid 2015, there had been speculation that the attack might have been committed by such a refugee.

Andreas Bode, a police spokesman in Muenster, said six of the 20 people injured were in critical condition and that the driver took his own life with a gunshot while still in the vehicle.

"There was a potentially suspicious object in the vehicle," Bode added. "We are investigating what it is."

German media reports said the object had protruding wires.A large crowd of people was enjoying a sunny and warm afternoon at a popular outdoor sidewalk restaurant when the van smashed into them. The crash happened at 3:27 p.m. local time, in a part of town designated mainly for pedestrians near the city's cathedral, the police spokesman said. Police had investigated initial witness reports that two other suspects may have been involved and fled the scene.

But later the state of North Rhine-Westphalia's top police official, Interior Minister Herbert Reul, told reporters in Muenster that police believe that the attack was carried out by the one German man acting alone.

"The assailant who arbitrarily drove furiously into a crowd of people was a German citizen and not, as has been claimed, a refugee or anything like that," Reul told reporters, referring to speculation that some of the refugees from Syria and the Middle East who arrived in Germany in recent years could have been behind the incident.

"The details of this are under investigation right now." Reul said. "And that's why we can't yet say what the motives were. At the moment there is no indication whatsoever of an Islamic background to this. We have to wait and see. We will be investigating in all directions. We need time for that."

The truck was traveling at a speed of about 30 mph in the pedestrian-filled area normally devoid of vehicle traffic when it crashed into the crowd, police said.

It was the first warm afternoon of the spring, with temperatures above 70 degrees outside the Kiepenkerl restaurant, according to NTV television. German media reported that police searched the truck for explosives.

German counter-terrorism authorities believe there are also 760 people considered "threats to public safety" in the country, many of them German citizens who returned to the country in recent years after training with or fighting for Islamic State.

"The whole city of Muenster is in mourning," said Muenster Mayor Markus Lewe. "We don't yet know at this point what was behind this horrible incident."

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Muenster is a small city in western Germany about 270 miles west of Berlin. On Dec. 19, 2016, 12 people were killed in Berlin city in an attack committed by Anis Amri, an asylum-seeker from Tunisia. He deliberately drove a stolen truck into a crowd of revelers at a Christmas market in an attack which Islamic State claimed responsibility.

With a population of 311,000, Muenster is little known outside Germany but famous inside the country as a pedestrian-friendly city with an exceptionally high number of bicycle riders.

Gabriele Ruegner, an eyewitness to Saturday's incident, told NTV television that she had been sitting at an outdoor cafe nearby in the city center when the crash happened.

"We were told by police that we should evacuate the area immediately, that there had been a terror attack. We weren't even allowed to pay our bills. Police told us it was a terror attack and there was a danger of a further attack and that's why we should leave immediately."

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

UPDATES:

2:30 p.m. This article was updated with additional information about the crash and to clarify that two people were killed by the van, not three. The third person dead was the driver of the vehicle, who took his own life with a gunshot while still in the van, police said.

9:45 a.m. This article was updated throughout with staff reporting that includes eyewitness accounts.

9:10 am. This article was updated with a report of three dead.

8:50 a.m. This article was updated with a report that driver killed himself.

This article was originally published at 8:20 a.m.

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