BERLIN—As the festive scents of roasted almonds, Glühwein, and cotton candy lingered in the evening air over the Christmas market by the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the streets were empty—except for policemen with machine guns standing everywhere.
At least 12 people are dead and around 50 injured after a truck mowed into a heavily packed square Monday evening in a suspected terror attack. The truck sped through a pedestrian street between wooden Christmas stalls for more than 150 feet, crushing people beneath its wheels, eyewitnesses reported.
A 19-year-old high-school student named Felix was walking into the shopping mall opposite the square about 8 p.m. with his friends when he heard “a scream go around the entire Breitscheidplatz,” he told The Daily Beast.
Angela Merkel said Tuesday that authorities were assuming this was a terrorist attack. Police have confirmed there were two men in the truck’s cab: The one in the passenger seat, described as a Polish national, was found dead, while the driver fled the scene. A 23-year-old man was later arrested less than a mile from the scene, around the Siegessäule, or Victory Column.
The man—named locally as Naved B—was arrested, after a member of the public chased him down Budapester Strasse, leading from the Breitscheidplatz to the city’s central park, Tiergarten. When the cops caught up, Naved did not try to resist arrest and police did not find any weapons on him.
Naved B denies having anything to do with the crime, although he is saying very little, according to security sources. He was already known to police as a suspected sex offender, and authorities believe he was registered under two different names, with similar dates of birth (though he is definitely born in 1993), and even two nationalities (Pakistani and Afghan).
On Tuesday, however, it seems real doubt was setting in over whether Naved B was connected to the attack. German newspaper Die Welt reported a high-ranking police officer saying, “We have the wrong man, and thus a new situation, as the real culprit is still armed, at large, and can do new damage.”
Berlin Police Chief Klaus Kandt confirmed that investigators are unsure if the suspect is the truck driver. Blood-splattered clothes had been found in the vehicle, but there were no traces of blood on Naved B.
The truck’s owner, who runs a carrier near Szczecin, Poland, has reportedly claimed that the vehicle was supposed to be delivering steel in Berlin on Tuesday morning but that the driver, his cousin, hasn’t been answering his phone since midday Monday.
The German police have tweeted their suspicions that the truck was stolen at a construction site in Poland. They have confirmed the man found dead in the truck’s passenger seat has Polish citizenship but have not yet reported the time or cause of his death.
Back at the Breitscheidplatz, where machine-gun-toting officers are standing guard over the crime scene and firefighters surround the wrecked truck, the situation has been described as “very calm and prudent.” (Police have also asked Berliners “not to spread rumors.”)
Despite warnings from the police to stay at home, a few people continued to amble on the road in front of the jagged Memorial Church, also known among Berliners as the Hohler Zahn, or Hollow Tooth, a city landmark that has been deliberately left in ruins since being bombed in World War II.
“Some of the victims are fairground people that we’ve known for years. The Memorial Church is a place of commemoration and peace,” the shocked minister told Der Spiegel.
One man, named Feras, told The Daily Beast he came here after hearing the screams from a nearby restaurant where he works the night shift behind the bar.
“I feel a real sadness,” he said. “I think logically it must be a terror attack, but I don’t understand why. Germany is the one country that is always welcoming, that opens its borders to people and gives them flats and jobs.”
Feras moved to Berlin from Pakistan to study economics two years ago. He describes Berlin as “a city like no other country—where you have everyone from everywhere.”
Now he’s worried “many things will change,” he said, adding calmly, “I hope it’s not a Arab who did this, and that I’ll have to hide then.”
Germany has managed to avoid large-scale terror attacks in the past, although smaller attacks this year have jolted the country’s authorities.
In October, police arrested a Syrian refugee named Jaber Al-Bakr, who was suspected of being in contact with ISIS and planning an imminent attack on a major transportation hub in Berlin.
The 22-year old was handed over to the authorities by three young Syrians in Leipzig, a large city in the German state of Saxony. They overwhelmed the terrorist suspect in his sleep, tied him up with a cable, and took a picture to show at their local police station.