Berlin Market Attack: Suspect Reportedly Arrested in August After Looking for Gun, but Let Go

Germany offers 100,000 euro award for suspect, an asylum seeker who authorities say has Islamist ties. Security services considered suspect since November.

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A handout released by German Federal Police Office shows two pictures of the Tunisian suspect, identified as Anis Amri, December 21, 2016.
A handout released by German Federal Police Office shows two pictures of the Tunisian suspect, identified as Anis Amri, December 21, 2016.Credit: HO/AFP

German police are looking for an asylum-seeker from Tunisia after finding an identity document under the driver's seat of a truck that ploughed into a Berlin Christmas market and killed 12 people, officials and security sources said on Wednesday.

German authorities are offering a reward of 100,000 euros for anyone who supplies information that leads to the arrest of the suspect in the attack.

Ralf Jaeger, interior minister of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said the man appeared to have arrived in Germany in July 2015 and his asylum application had been rejected.

He seemed to have used different names and had been identified by security agencies as being in contact with an Islamist network. The man had mainly lived in Berlin since February, but was recently in NRW, Jaeger said.

The man had been considered a potential threat by security authorities since November. After being turned down for asylum, he should have been deported but could not be returned to Tunisia because his documents were missing, added Jaeger.

A German security official told CNN that Amri had been arrested with forged documents in Friedrichshafen in southern Germany in August. He was on his way to Italy, but a judge released him, CNN reported. The suspect drew the attention of the German police because he was looking for a gun.

Amri's father and security officials told a Tunisian radio station on Wednesday  that the suspect had left the country seven years ago as an illegal immigrant, and spent four and a half years in an Italian prison  after being convicted of arson for torching a school. 

The 24-year-old suspect is described as being 1.78 meters (5' 8") tall and weighs 75 kilograms (165 pounds) with black hair and brown eyes. The authorities are calling on the public to remain vigilant, as he is considered violent and armed.

The new details added to a growing list of questions about whether security authorities missed opportunities to prevent the attack, in which a 25-ton truck mowed down a crowd of shoppers and smashed through wooden huts selling gifts, mulled wine and sausages. It was the deadliest attack on German soil since 1980.

Twelve people were killed and 48 others, including an Israeli national, were wounded in the attack. Six of the 12 victims were identified as German nationals, the head of Germany's federal police said.

Christmas markets have been a known potential target for Islamist militants since at least 2000, when authorities thwarted a plot to attack one in Strasbourg, France. And the modus operandi in Berlin was identical to that of a Bastille Day attack in the French city of Nice in July, when a Tunisian-born man rammed a truck through a seaside crowd and killed 86 people.

Security sources said the ID found by the Berlin investigators was in the name of Anis Amri, born in the southern Tunisian city of Tataouine in 1992. By convention, suspects in Germany are identified by the first name and initial.

A spokesperson for Tunisia's foreign ministry said it was trying to verify that information.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said a Europe-wide manhunt for the suspect had been underway since midnight.

The Rheinische Post newspaper said police had begun searching a shelter for migrants in western Germany where the man was believed to have lived.

Symbolic target

The pre-Christmas carnage at a symbolic Berlin site - under the ruined spire of a church bombed in World War Two - has shocked Germans and prompted security reviews across Europe, already on high alert after attacks this year in Belgium and France.

The possible - though unproven - involvement of a migrant or refugee has revived a bitter debate about security and immigration, with Chancellor Angela Merkel facing calls to clamp down after allowing more than a million newcomers into Germany in the past two years.

Merkel, who will run for a fourth term next year, has said it would be particularly repugnant if a refugee seeking protection in Germany was the perpetrator.

Police initially arrested a Pakistani asylum-seeker near the scene, but released him without charge on Tuesday. Authorities have warned that the attacker is on the run and may be armed. It is not clear if the perpetrator was acting alone or with others.

The Polish driver of the hijacked truck was found shot dead in the cabin of the vehicle. Bild newspaper reported that he was alive until the attack took place.

It quoted an investigator as saying there must have been a struggle with the attacker, who may have been injured.

Islamic State claim

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility, as it did for the Nice attack.

The Passauer Neue Presse newspaper quoted the head of the group of interior ministers from Germany's 16 federal states, Klaus Bouillon, as saying tougher security measures were needed.

"We want to raise the police presence and strengthen the protection of Christmas markets. We will have more patrols. Officers will have machine guns. We want to make access to markets more difficult, with vehicles parked across them," Bouillon told the paper.

Some politicians have blamed Merkel's open-door migrant policy for making such attacks more likely. The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has gained support in the last two years as the chancellor's popularity has waned, said on Tuesday that Germany is no longer safe.

Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann told German radio there was a higher risk of Islamist attacks because of the influx of migrants in the past two years, many of whom have fled conflicts in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The task of tracking the suspects and the movements of the truck may be complicated by the relative scarcity of security cameras in public places in Germany, compared with similar countries such as Britain.

The German cabinet on Wednesday approved a draft law to broaden video surveillance in public and commercial areas, a move agreed by political parties last month after a spate of violent attacks and sexual assaults on women.

State surveillance is a sensitive issue in Germany because of extensive snooping by the Stasi secret police in Communist East Germany and by the Gestapo in the Nazi era.