BERLIN: A Pakistani asylum seeker suspected of ploughing a lorry into a Berlin Christmas market and killing 12 people was released Tuesday for lack of evidence, prosecutors said.
“The accused, detained over the attack on the Berlin Christmas market on December 19, 2016, was let go on this evening on the orders of the federal prosecutor,” his office said in a statement. Authorities identified the man earlier as a Pakistani asylum seeker.
“The forensic tests carried out so far did not provide evidence of the accused’s presence during the crimes in the cab of the lorry.”
As the shellshocked German capital reeled from the country’s deadliest attack of recent years, doubts emerged over whether the man detained overnight actually committed the atrocity.
Berlin’s police chief, Klaus Kandt, said “we may have a dangerous criminal in the area”, and announced that security would be boosted while urging “heightened vigilance”.
Prosecutor Peter Frank also said “we may have to get used to the idea that the detained man may not be the perpetrator”, while forensic work and questioning continued and investigators asked the public to send them any photos and video footage.
Twelve people were killed and almost 50 wounded when the truck tore through the crowd Monday, smashing wooden stalls and crushing victims, in scenes reminiscent of July’s deadly attack in the French Riviera city of Nice.
The mangled truck came to a halt with its windscreen smashed, a trail of destruction and screaming victims in its wake, with Christmas trees toppled on their side, days before the country’s most important festival.
Chancellor Angela Merkel — who visited the scene of the carnage for a minute’s silence and then joined a memorial service in the adjacent Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church — labelled the deadly rampage a likely “terrorist” attack.
Merkel said that, if it was confirmed that the killer had been part of the country’s recent huge refugee influx, this would be “particularly sickening in relation to the many, many Germans who are involved every day in helping refugees”.
The Polish-registered vehicle, which was loaded with steel beams, had cut a bloody swathe of 60-80 metres (yards) into the market in the once-divided city’s inner west.
At least six of those killed were German citizens, authorities said, while countries from Israel to Spain said their nationals were among those injured in the busy tourist spot.
A Polish man, killed with an gunshot, was found on the truck’s passenger seat, said de Maiziere. He was believed to be the vehicle’s registered driver.
The Polish owner of the lorry, Ariel Zurawski, confirmed Monday that the driver — his 37-year-old cousin — was missing, telling AFP: “We don’t know what happened to him … I’ve known him since I was a kid. I can vouch for him.”
Survivors recounted harrowing stories of near misses and carnage as festive partying turned to death and destruction in seconds.
German flags flew at half-mast and mourners placed flowers and candles at the site. Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate was to be lit in the German colours black, red and gold in honour of the victims at dusk on Tuesday.
The government declared that the city’s 60-odd Christmas markets — after a one-day voluntary stoppage out of respect for the victims — should continue because “we must not let our free way of life be taken from us”.
Europe has been on high alert for most of 2016, with bloody jihadist attacks striking Paris and Brussels. The arrival of 890,000 refugees last year has polarised Germany, with critics calling the influx a serious security threat.