An Afghan refugee stole a 25-tonne articulated lorry, drove to a busy Christmas market in Berlin, turned its lights off, mowed down and killed 12 people – and injured 48 others – as it sped at 40mph.
The vehicle which was filled with steel cargo mounted the pavement at 7pm, before tearing through stalls and shoppers on Breitscheidplatz Square, outside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the German capital’s main shopping area.
The man at the wheel – who according to German newspaper Berliner used different aliases, was of Afghan heritage and had arrived in Germany in February – fled the scene but was later catured and arrested at a nearby zoo.
Police confirmed the original driver, who was transporting steel beams from Poland to Germany, was a Polish national who was found dead in the lorry’s cabin. It is thought he was hijacked. As German police, the White House and Germany’s top security official indicated the incident was terror related, there was a chilling echo of the deadly terror attack in the French city of Nice in July. It also came just one hour after the Russian ambassador was shot dead in Ankara.
The harrowing incident also comes amid repeated warnings from various security agencies that ISIS planned to wreak havoc on European countries during the festive season, specifically threatening Christmas markets. The usually merry streets became scenes of chaos, with people being pulled from under the flattened wooden stalls and others ferried off in ambulances, some tragically under white sheets.
The Die Welt newspaper said that German intelligence had been warning city authorities for the past week of a possible attack on a Christmas market. Germany’s justice minister says federal prosecutors, who handle terrorism cases, had taken over the investigation, while police used Twitter to urge locals to stay in their homes, to ‘check suspicious objects’ and encouraged people to use a Facebook safety check loved ones were safe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she is ‘mourning the dead’, while The White House said: ‘The United States condemns in the strongest terms what appears to have been a terrorist attack on a Christmas Market in Berlin, Germany, which has killed and wounded dozens.’ The Polish owner of the lorry confirmed his driver was missing. Speaking on Polish news channel TVN24, the owner of the haulage firm Ariel Zurawski said his relative would not have committed an act of terror: ‘I can say hand on heart that the man who drove into those people in the centre of Berlin was not my driver.
‘This is my cousin. I’ve known him since I was born. I can vouch for him.
‘My scenario is that they did something to the driver – they hijacked this vehicle because it was practically in the centre of Berlin and they had a good vehicle with which they could do what they did.
‘They did something to my driver, God forbid, something serious. It looks like that.
‘We haven’t heard from him since this afternoon. We don’t know what happened to him.’
British tourist Mike Fox, from Birmingham, said the large truck missed him by about three meters as it drove into the market, tearing through tables and wooden stands.
‘It was definitely deliberate,’ he said.
Mr Fox said he helped people who appeared to have broken limbs, and said others were trapped under Christmas stands, adding: ‘We were in the market, outside the cathedral and we had just had mulled wine then as we were leaving the large truck came through. ‘It went just past me, past my girlfriend. I think it missed me by three metres, missed her by five. It came in through the entrance, hit the sides of the barriers and then carried on past us. ‘You do what you can to help who you can, really. It happened so fast that there was nothing we could do to stop it – if we’d tried to stop it we would have been crushed.’ Emma Rushton from Rugby in Warwickshire, saw the lorry rush past her at speed and said it could not have been an accident. She told Sky News she only missed being caught in the chaos because she had climbed up some steps to take a seat, adding:
‘The stall that we bought our mulled wine from was completely crushed. People were tearing off wooden panels to get out.
‘It was not an accident. It was going 40mph, it was in the middle of the market. There was no way that it could have come off the road and it showed no signs of slowing down.’
‘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.’
Richard Clarkson, from Brighton, told the Irish Independent he was at the nearby Irish Bar with friends when the incident happened.
Brighton resident Mr Clarkson said: ‘I just walked out and I saw the truck, the windscreen was broken, I didn’t see any bodies they were very quick to cover them up I think.
‘The word terrorist is being thrown around a lot at the moment and people seem scared.’
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the circumstances of the deadly crash were still unclear, but a lot pointed to an attack.
‘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.
One eye witness said the lorry had no lights on when it smashed into the market.
He said: ‘He just drove onto the square from the Kant street. That had to have been intentional, because his lights were not switched on. And then I just heard this loud bang and hysterical screaming.’
Australian Trisha O’Neill told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation she was only metres from where the truck smashed into the crowded market.
‘I just saw this huge black truck speeding through the markets crushing so many people and then all the lights went out and everything was destroyed.
‘I could hear screaming and then we all froze. Then suddenly people started to move and lift all the wreckage off people, trying to help whoever was there.’
O’Neill said there was ‘blood and bodies everywhere’
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