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Tunisia arrested the nephew of the suspected Berlin truck attacker and two other jihadist suspects who are “connected” to Anis Amri, the interior ministry said Saturday, as German investigators continued their hunt for possible accomplices.
A statement said the three suspects, aged between 18 and 27, were arrested on Friday and were members of a “terrorist cell… connected to the terrorist Anis Amri”.
It made no direct link between the suspects and Monday’s deadly attack on a Berlin Christmas market.
The interior ministry said that Amri had sent money to his nephew and encouraged him to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group.
“One of the members of the cell is the son of the sister of the terrorist (Amri) and during the investigation he admitted that he was in contact with his uncle through (the messaging service) Telegram,” it said.
Amri allegedly urged his nephew to adopt jihadist “takfiri” ideology “and asked him to pledge allegiance to Daesh (IS),” it said.
The nephew also told investigators that Amri “sent him money through the post… so that he could join him in Germany,” the statement added.
The unnamed nephew was reported in the statement to have said that his uncle was the “prince” or leader of a jihadist group based in Germany and know as the “Abu al-Walaa” brigade.
Amri, 24, is believed to have hijacked a truck and used it to mow down holiday revellers at a Berlin Christmas market on Monday, killing 12 people in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.
He was shot dead after pulling out a pistol and firing at two Italian policemen who had stopped him for a routine identity check Friday near Milan’s Sesto San Giovanni railway station.
He lightly wounded one of the policemen before being killed by the other.
The Tunisian interior ministry did not specify where the three suspects were arrested but said that the “terrorist cell” was “active” between Fouchana, south of Tunis, and Oueslatia, hometown of Amri’s family in central Tunisia.
The arrests come as German authorities are racing to find out whether Amri had help from accomplices before or after the attack.
“It is very important for us to determine whether there was a network of accomplices… in the preparation or the execution of the attack, or the flight of the suspect,” federal prosecutor Peter Frank said Friday.
Seven of the victims killed in the attack were German nationals, a federal police spokeswoman told AFP. The other five came from the Czech Republic, Italy, Israel, Poland and Ukraine.
The fact that Amri was able to travel to Italy unhindered despite a Europe-wide arrest warrant has raised uncomfortable questions for intelligence agencies.
German security services have also faced criticism for not keeping better tabs on Amri before the Berlin carnage, even though he was a known criminal with links to the Islamist scene.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged a “comprehensive” analysis of how Amri was able to slip through the net and vowed to speed up the deportation of rejected asylum seekers like him.
Media reports said a train ticket found in Amri’s backpack suggested he had boarded a train in Chambery, southeastern France, and passed through Turin before arriving in Milan.
Milan police said Amri had a few hundred euros on him but no telephone.
Amri left Tunisia for Italy in 2011. He spent four years in prison there for starting a fire in a refugee centre, during which time he was apparently radicalised.
After serving his sentence he made his way to Germany in 2015, taking advantage of Europe’s Schengen system of open borders — as he did on his return to Italy this week.
German security agencies began monitoring Amri in March, suspecting he was planning break-ins to raise cash for automatic weapons to carry out an attack.
But the surveillance was stopped in September because Amri was seen primarily as a small-time drug dealer.