Germany was braced for a possible manhunt on Tuesday after doubts emerged as to whether the man arrested after an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin was indeed the perpetrator.
Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister, said he was in “no doubt” that the attack, in which a truck was driven at speed into a crowded market in the heart of the German capital, was an act of terror, but that the suspect in custody had denied involvement.
Klaus Kandt, Berlin’s police chief, said authorities had not been able to confirm that the man in custody was the perpetrator, and that they were also still uncertain how many people had been involved in the attack.
Mr Kandt said eyewitnesses had seen a person climb out of the cab of the truck and flee in the wake of the attack, which left 12 dead and 48 people injured on Monday evening
“The driver was followed for a short way, so that we knew the beginning of the suspected escape route,” he told journalists, adding that the man in custody had been arrested close to Berlin’s Siegessäule monument barely an hour after the attack took place.
“The suspect . . . was arrested because he could match the description [we had], but he always denied any involvement,” Mr Kandt said. “It is the case that this person was not continuously under observation from the vehicle to the arrest . . . and therefore there is some uncertainty, and as a result we are of course taking enhanced precautions,” he said. “It is possible that we are dealing with a dangerous criminal.”
Police are still evaluating a variety of evidence from the scene, as well as data from a mobile phone seized during a search of a refugee facility in Berlin’s former airport at Tempelhof.
The authorities said the man being held is a Pakistani national who had applied for asylum after entering Germany on December 31 last year. He arrived in Berlin in February.
The attack is the worst terror incident in Germany since large numbers of refugees began entering the country in 2015, many of them from Syria and other Muslim countries.
German security officials have repeatedly warned that militant groups such as Isis may have smuggled their operatives into Germany under cover of the refugee influx.
Mr de Maizière said the suspect was known to police for minor offences but was not on any terrorist watchlist. He said there had been no claim of responsibility. German media named the man in custody as “Naved B”, a 23-year-old Pakistani.
Monday’s events echoed the bloody attack in Nice in July when Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a 19-tonne truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day on the beachfront, killing 86 people.
Video footage of the aftermath of the attack showed debris widely scattered across the pavement and several of the injured, some of them lying in pools of blood, being helped by passers-by. A number of people were trapped under the truck and had to be rescued by emergency services.
Mr de Maizière said that all of Berlin’s Christmas markets would be closed for the day, although other markets and big events across Germany would go ahead as scheduled with stepped-up security. “Cancelling them would be the wrong thing to do,” he said.
He added that a man in the passenger seat of the lorry had been shot dead, but so far the authorities had not recovered a firearm.
In an interview with Polish television, a man identified as the owner of the haulage company that operated the truck, Ariel Zurawski, said he had been unable to reach the original driver, who was his cousin, since around 4pm local time on Monday. German media reported that the lorry had been stolen at a building site in Germany.
Beata Szydlo, Poland’s prime minister, confirmed that the “first victim” of the truck attack was a Polish citizen.
If the attacker is found to be an asylum seeker it will increase pressure on German chancellor Angela Merkel and put the refugee issue back at the top of the political agenda just months before federal elections where she is seeking a fourth term.
She has already come under fire from politicians on the right, who claim her decision to throw open Germany’s borders to tens of thousands of refugees in the summer of 2015 compromised national security.
“These are Merkel’s dead!” tweeted Markus Pretzell, a leading figure in the populist Alternative for Germany party which calls for strict controls on immigration.
Frauke Petry, the party’s leader, said Germany was no longer safe. “Radical Islamist terrorism has struck in the heart of Germany,” she said.
Even within Ms Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc, there were calls for a tougher approach on immigration. Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of Bavaria and leader of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said the country now needed to change its immigration and security policies in the light of the attack.
However, politicians on the left urged calm. Cem Ozdemir, head of the Green party, told German television that it would be wrong to respond to Monday’s attack by “going crazy” and turning the country into a high-security facility.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Warsaw