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Islamic State claims responsibility for Berlin attack, and police say they arrested the wrong man

The German capital was rattled again Tuesday when senior police officials admitted they had arrested the wrong man in their investigation into an apparent terrorist attack that killed 12 people at an outdoor Christmas market the day before.

The Islamic State group took responsibility for the attack, saying it had been carried out by an unidentified “soldier.”

Police had apprehended a 23-year-old refugee shortly after a 40-ton truck careened through a crowded holiday gathering in the heart of Berlin. But on Tuesday evening, authorities said they were releasing him.

“There was a lack of evidence so far against the man,” said a statement posted on the website of the federal prosecutor’s office.

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News that the assailant, and possible accomplices, were on the loose sent a chill through the country, which was still reeling from its worst terrorist attack in decades.

Berlin police added to the tense atmosphere with a series of alarming tweets: “We’re on high alert with our investigation. Please report any suspicious activity to the police. Please be on the alert.”

Late Tuesday evening, Islamic State claimed responsibility on its Amaq news site, saying the attack had been carried out “in response to the calls of targeting the citizens of the international coalition.” That language suggested that the perpetrator may have been inspired, but not necessarily directed, by Islamic State.

A card reading “In memory of the victims” is seen Dec. 20 at the site where a truck crashed into a Christmas market in Berlin.
A card reading "In memory of the victims" is seen Dec. 20 at the site where a truck crashed into a Christmas market in Berlin.
(John MacDougall / AFP/Getty Images )

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The surprising turn of events contributed to a sense of confusion in Berlin, where people had first felt relieved that a suspect had quickly been arrested. The 23-year-old refugee, believed to be a Pakistani national who arrived in Germany at the end of 2015, had been apprehended after he was followed for blocks by a witness to the attack who alerted police.

Authorities determined that the man had been in trouble with the law locally in the last year for minor offenses.

The initial sense of complacency was furthered by the fact that local authorities had waited until Tuesday before determining that the attack had been deliberate and not an accident. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere had refused to use the word “attack” for hours after it happened, saying it was too early to determine that.

Nevertheless, some police officials, foreign observers and eyewitnesses had quickly concluded that it had the signature of a terrorist attack rather than an accident, partly because the truck didn’t slow after hitting the crowd but plowed deeper into it, and also because a Polish man who was the regular driver of the truck was found shot to death in the cab, suggesting the vehicle had been hijacked.

And on Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel labeled the attack an act of terrorism, adding that she was struggling to come to terms with the idea that a refugee who had been given shelter by her country could have been the assailant. This was before the case against him apparently crumbled.

Location of truck crash in Berlin.

Location of truck crash in Berlin.

(@latimesgraphics)

“We have to assume that this was a terror attack,” Merkel said in a brief six-minute television statement as flags across the country were lowered to half-staff. “It’s hard for us to understand that the person who did this came to Germany in search of protection and asylum, if that’s confirmed. That would be especially sickening for all those in Germany helping refugees and for those who came here to be protected and integrate themselves.”

German media reports said doubts had been raised about the arrested man’s involvement in part because blood-covered clothing was found inside the cabin of the truck, but there were no traces of blood on the man’s clothing.

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Also, there were no signs that he had been involved in an altercation, and police believe the Polish driver was killed in a struggle before the truck drove into the crowd.

Merkel, who has faced heavy criticism for allowing more than a million refugees into the country over the last 18 months and could see her reelection chances hurt by the deadly attack, said Germany would not cave in to fear and change its way of life

The chancellor joined German President Joachim Gauck and senior government officials attended a mourning ceremony Tuesday evening at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the heart of the now closed-down Christmas market. The church is itself a carefully maintained ruin from the Allied bombs of World War II.

Merkel also placed a wreath at the scene of the attack together with De Maiziere and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

From left, Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier lay flowers on Dec. 20, 2016, at the site of an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin.
From left, Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier lay flowers on Dec. 20, 2016, at the site of an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin.
(Tobias Schwarz / AFP/Getty Images )
We don’t want to do without our Christmas markets. We don’t want to let fear of evil paralyze us.
Chancellor Angela Merkel

Merkel, who had received assurances of support on the phone earlier Tuesday from President Obama, said that it would be wrong for Germans to change their lives because of the attack. She vowed the case would be resolved and the assailant prosecuted.

“We don’t want to do without our Christmas markets. We don’t want to let fear of evil paralyze us,” she said. “We’ll find the strength to live our lives in Germany the way we want to: in freedom and openly.”

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In addition to those killed, more than 48 people were hurt, some critically, when the truck drove for about 80 yards into a crowd of hundreds gathered around the Christmas market stalls and shops around the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the heart of west Berlin at 8 p.m.

The incident revived memories of a similar low-tech attack in July in Nice, France, when a truck driver plowed through a national holiday crowd and killed more than 80 people during Bastille Day celebrations.

Many of the German victims were crushed by the truck, which police said had been hijacked about four hours earlier. The lone suspect was arrested about a mile away after a bystander followed him through the dark Tiergarten park and kept the police informed of his whereabouts.

“This was an attack against our freedom,” Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller told a news conference. Local officials said that the operators of dozens of the popular holiday-season Christmas markets across Berlin were being urged to stay closed Tuesday.

German security authorities had long warned about the vulnerability to terror attacks of the popular open-air Christmas markets, where revelers celebrate the holiday season by drinking mulled wine while eating sausages and sweets.

After deadly terror attacks in Paris, Brussels and Nice over the last 14 months, Germans have been on a heightened state of alert, fearful that similar Islamist attacks could happen at any time.

Fears that terrorists might have slipped into the country under the flood of refugees have been growing following three relatively minor attacks in 2016 involving migrants: a knife attack against a police officer, an ax attack against tourists on a train and a bungled suicide bombing in which only the attacker from Syria was killed.

Adding to the sense of angst, a 17-year-old Afghan refugee was arrested earlier in December on suspicion of raping and killing a young German medical student in the small college town of Freiburg. Merkel has faced growing criticism for her refugee policies since hundreds of foreign men sexually abused and groped women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and dozens of other cities.

The far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party wasted little time in blaming Merkel for the terror attack in Berlin. Marcus Pretzell, the party’s leader in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, attacked the chancellor on Twitter: “When will the German rule of law strike back? When will this cursed hypocrisy be stopped? These are Merkel’s deaths.”

Frauke Petry, the national leader of the AfD that has come out of nowhere over the last four years to claim more than 10% of the support in opinion polls, added: “Germany is no longer safe.”

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

11:50 a.m.: This article has been updated with Islamic State claiming responsibility for the attack.

10:54 a.m.: This article has been updated with police officials saying they had arrested the wrong man.

7:50 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting.

This article was originally posted at 5 a.m.


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