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A truck ploughed into a crowd at a Christmas market in the German capital Berlin on Monday evening, killing at least 12 people and injuring 48 others, police said. One man was arrested while a second person was killed during the attack.
Citing police at the scene, German media reported that a driver drove up onto the pavement of the market, situated in the central Breitscheidplatz square near fashionable Kurfuerstendamm avenue and the ruins of Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church.
“A man who was apparently driving the truck was detained,” a police spokeswoman told AFP. “The person riding in the vehicle is dead.”
The Polish owner of the lorry confirmed his driver was missing.
“We haven’t heard from him since this afternoon. We don’t know what happened to him. He’s my cousin, I’ve known him since I was a kid. I can vouch for him,” transport company owner Ariel Zurawski told AFP.
Witnesses described scenes of pandemonium. “I heard a big noise and then I moved on the Christmas market and saw much chaos … many injured people,” Jan Hollitzer, deputy editor in chief of Berliner Morgenpost, told CNN. “It was really traumatic.”
Television images showed the truck halted amid debris from the small wooden stalls that made up the “Christkindlmarkt”. Christmas markets like these are a common sight across Berlin and other European cities at this time of year.
Police cars and ambulances converged on the scene soon after the crash and rescue operations began.
‘A lot points to an attack’
Police said that they believe the driver crashed the truck deliberately.
“Our investigators assume that the truck was intentionally steered into the crowd at the Christmas market,” police said in a Twitter message.
However, authorities said it was too soon to speculate on the motive.
“We are investigating whether it was a terror attack but do not yet know what was behind it,” a police spokesman told AFP. “One person was detained. The cab of the truck was found empty.”
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the circumstances of the crash were still unclear, but that it was an attack was a strong possibility.
“We don’t yet have anything conclusive regarding the circumstances and the course of events,” de Maiziere told ARD public television, adding that investigators were working hard to put together all the pieces of evidence. “I don’t want to use the word ‘attack’ yet although a lot points to that,” the minister said.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hopes for the best for all of those wounded.
“We mourn the dead and hope that the many people injured can be helped,” her spokesman Steffen Seibert tweeted.
Merkel was being briefed by Interior Minister de Maiziere and the mayor of Berlin.
Echoes of Nice
The incident was reminiscent of a July 14th attack in Nice, when an attacker drove a 19-tonne truck through a crowd of people who had gathered to watch fireworks on Bastille Day along the beach front, killing 86 people.
Police shot dead the driver in the Nice attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.
French President François Hollande said Monday that: “The French share in the mourning of the Germans in the face of this tragedy that has hit all of Europe.”
France’s Interior Ministry said it had ordered increased security at its own Christmas markets in response to the incident in Berlin.
“Franco-German cooperation will continue with no respite so that democracies win the war against those who want to strike at our values and freedoms,” the ministry said in a statement.
“All security forces will keep to a maximum level of vigilance. Security at Christmas markets will be reinforced with immediate effect.”
The United States, meanwhile, said it condemned what it referred to as an apparent “terrorist attack”.
“Germany is one of our closest partners and strongest allies, and we stand together with Berlin in the fight against all those who target our way of life and threaten our societies,” White House National Security spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
President-elect Donald Trump was typically less cautious in his assessment of the incident, blaming “Islamist terrorists” for the “slaughter” in Berlin.
“Our hearts and prayers are with the loved ones of the victims of today’s horrifying terror attack in Berlin. Innocent civilians were murdered in the streets as they prepared to celebrate the Christmas holiday,” Trump said in a statement.
“[The Islamic State group] and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad.”
Europe has been on high alert for most of 2016, with terror attacks striking Paris and Brussels, while Germany has been hit by several assaults claimed by the Islamic State group.
An axe rampage on a train in the southern state of Bavaria in July injured five people, and a suicide bombing wounded 15 people in the same state six days later.
In another case, a 16-year-old German-Moroccan girl in February stabbed a police officer in the neck with a kitchen knife, wounding him badly, allegedly on IS orders.