ABOVE PHOTO: Firefighters look at the debris after the trailer has been towed away from the crime scene in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, the day after a truck ran into a crowded Christmas market and killed several people. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
By Kirsten Grieshaber and Frank Jordans
BERLIN — German authorities are calling the truck attack on a crowded Christmas market an “act of terrorism” that had all the hallmarks of Islamic extremism – but many questions remained over who carried out the attack that killed 12 people and wounded nearly 50 in the heart of Berlin.
The head of the Federal Criminal Police Office, or BKA, said it couldn’t rule out that a suspect or suspects involved in the Monday night attack may still be at large, despite the high-profile arrest of a man shortly after the incident.
BKA chief Holger Muench said Tuesday that authorities aren’t sure the suspect they have in custody was the driver of the truck, and that the man denies being involved. He added that police have also not yet found a pistol believed used to kill a Polish truck driver who was supposed to be delivering steel beams with the truck until it went missing.
Germany’s top prosecutor Peter Frank told reporters the attack on the market outside the landmark Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was reminiscent of July’s deadly truck attack in Nice and appeared to follow instructions published by the Islamic State group.
“There is also the prominent and symbolic target of a Christmas market, and the modus operandi that mirrors at least past calls by jihadi terror organizations,” Frank said.
Still, he said authorities had not yet heard any claim of responsibility.
Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted the attack cannot change Germans’ way of life.
“Twelve people who were still among us yesterday, who were looking forward to Christmas, who had plans for the holidays, aren’t among us anymore,” she said in an emotional, nationally televised statement before heading to the scene of the attack in downtown Berlin. “A gruesome and ultimately incomprehensible act has robbed them of their lives.”
Witnesses saw only one man flee from the truck after it rammed into the crowded Christmas market Monday evening. It smashed through the market, going 60 to 80 meters (200 to 260 feet) before finally coming to a halt.
Six of those killed have been identified as Germans, and the man found shot and killed in the truck’s passenger seat was Polish. The other five people killed have not yet been identified, and 18 people are still suffering from serious injuries.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the man detained shortly after the attack was a Pakistani citizen. He had entered Germany as a migrant on Dec. 31 last year and arrived in Berlin in February.
Berlin police urged people to remain “particularly vigilant” and to report “suspicious movement” to a special hotline.
“We may still have a dangerous criminal out there,” Berlin police chief Klaus Kandt said.
Merkel, who has been criticized for allowing in huge numbers of migrants last year, addressed head-on the possibility that an asylum-seeker was responsible for the carnage.
“I know that it would be particularly hard for us all to bear if it were confirmed that a person committed this act who asked for protection and asylum in Germany,” Merkel said. “This would be particularly sickening for the many, many Germans who work to help refugees every day and for the many people who really need our help and are making an effort to integrate in our country.”
A spokesman for Berlin’s office for refugee affairs said police conducted a broad search overnight at a large shelter for asylum-seekers at the city’s now-defunct Tempelhof airport. Four men in their late 20s were questioned but nobody was arrested, Sascha Langenbach told The Associated Press.
The Polish owner of the truck said he feared the vehicle may have been hijacked. Ariel Zurawski said he last spoke with the driver, his cousin, around noon on Monday and the driver told him he was in Berlin and scheduled to unload Tuesday morning.
“They must have done something to my driver,” he told TVN24.
Germans have been increasingly wary since two attacks by asylum-seekers in the summer that were claimed by the Islamic State group. Five people were wounded in an ax rampage on a train near Wuerzburg and 15 wounded in a bombing outside a bar in Ansbach, both in the southern state of Bavaria. Both attackers were killed.
Those attacks, and two others unrelated to Islamic extremism in the same weeklong period, contributed to tensions in Germany over the arrival last year of 890,000 migrants.
Far-right groups and a nationalist party seized on Monday night’s attack, blaming Merkel for what happened.
“Under the cloak of helping people Merkel has completely surrendered our domestic security,” Frauke Petry, the co-chairwoman of the Alternative for Germany party, wrote.
Manfred Weber, a member of Merkel’s conservative bloc and leader of the European Parliament’s biggest political group, cautioned against sweeping verdicts, but said it was important to ensure that extremists didn’t enter the country.
The German government said Merkel spoke Tuesday with President Barack Obama, who expressed his condolences. In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the United States was ready to help in the investigation and response.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said Islamic extremists must be “eradicated from the face of the earth” and pledged to carry out that mission with all “freedom-loving partners.”
The attack came less than a month after the U.S. State Department warned that extremist groups including Islamic State and al-Qaida were focusing “on the upcoming holiday season and associated events” in Europe.
The Islamic State group and al-Qaida have both called on followers to use trucks in particular to attack crowds. On July 14, a truck plowed into Bastille Day revelers in the southern French city of Nice, killing 86 people. IS claimed responsibility for that attack, which was carried out by a Tunisian living in France.