German police launched a manhunt Wednesday for a rejected asylum seeker suspected of involvement in a deadly truck assault on a Berlin Christmas market claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.
Officials said the suspect, 24-year-old Tunisian national Anis Amri, had already been under investigation for planning an attack, in a development certain to fuel public outrage.
Asylum office papers believed to belong to Amri, alleged to have links to the radical Islamist scene, were found in the cab of the 40-ton lorry used in the attack that killed 12 people.
Prosecutors released a wanted notice with two photos of the dark-haired, brown-eyed suspect and offering a reward of 100,000 euros ($104,000) for information leading to the arrest of Amri, who they warned “could be violent and armed.”
The interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia state, Ralf Jaeger, said counter-terrorism officials had exchanged information about Amri, most recently in November, and a probe had been launched suspecting he was preparing “a serious act of violence against the state,” Jaeger said.
Amri came to Germany in July 2015 but his application for asylum was rejected this June.
His deportation, however, got caught up in red tape with Tunisia, which long denied he was a citizen. The required documents only arrived on Wednesday, two days after the Berlin attack, said Jaeger.
Another conservative lawmaker, Stephan Meyer, acknowledged the suspect had been under police surveillance.
“We are apparently talking about a potentially dangerous suspect who was known to authorities and belonged to the Salafist-Islamist scene,” he told reporters.
A previous suspect — a 23-year-old Pakistani asylum seeker — was released late Tuesday for lack of evidence, prompting fears of a killer on the loose and further rattling nerves in a shocked country.
– Deportation debate –
Twelve people were killed when the Polish-registered articulated truck, laden with steel beams, slammed into the crowded holiday market late Monday, smashing wooden stalls and crushing victims.
Six of the dead have been identified as German while media reported one of the victims as an Italian woman.
Twenty-four people remain in hospital, 14 of whom were seriously injured.
The scenes revived nightmarish memories of the July 14 truck assault in the French Riviera city of Nice, where 86 people were killed by a Tunisian Islamist.
The IS-linked Amaq news agency said “a soldier of the Islamic State” carried out the Berlin carnage “in response to appeals to target citizens of coalition countries.”
There was no evidence to back the claim, nor did Amaq identify the perpetrator.
Germany is part of a U.S.-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria.
Tunisia is one of the biggest suppliers of jihadist fighters, with some 5,500 of its nationals believed to be involved in combat in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
The Berlin attack comes at a delicate time for Chancellor Angela Merkel who is running for a fourth term in 2017 but has faced strong criticism over her decision last year to open the country’s borders to refugees.
The case inflamed the debate about asylum policy in general, and in particular the speed at which rejected asylum seekers can be deported.
Germany this year moved to declare Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia as safe countries of origin, to raise the bar for asylum requests after last year’s record influx of around 890,000 people.
But the bill has been stuck in the upper house for months over human rights concerns in those countries.
Meanwhile the country boosted security measures in the wake of Monday’s attack, beefing up the police presence at train stations, airports and at its borders with Poland and France.
– Germany in mourning –
A Polish man, killed with a gunshot, was found in the truck’s passenger seat. The 37-year-old Pole named Lukasz worked for his cousin Ariel Zurawski’s transport company in northern Poland.
Zurawski described him as a “good guy” and said his body showed signs of a struggle with the assailant or assailants including stab marks.
“One person would not have been able to overpower him,” Zurawski said of the heavyset relative he had grown up with.
“We could see injuries. His face was bloodied and swollen,” he told private news channel TVN 24, referring to a photo he received from Polish police.
An autopsy indicated that the driver was still alive at the time of the attack, the daily Bild reported.
Merkel visited the scene of the carnage for a minute’s silence on Tuesday and then joined a service in the adjacent Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
Mourners placed flowers and candles at the site while German flags flew at half-mast and Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate was lit in the national colors in honor of the victims.
Europe has been on high alert for most of 2016, with bloody jihadist attacks striking Paris since last year and Brussels.
In Germany, two attacks in July in the southern state of Bavaria were committed by asylum seekers and claimed by IS.