Yesterday’s terror attack in Berlin, in which a truck was deliberately driven into a packed Christmas market, killing 12 people and injuring almost 50 others, could prove another blow for tourism to Europe.
The perpetrator may still be at large. German police initially said the man behind the wheel was a 23-year-old asylum seeker from Pakistan who had turned up in Germany a year ago. The truck appears to have been hijacked, with the original driver, from Poland, found slumped in the cab, shot dead.
Early this morning [Australian time] however, German police released the Pakistani man, saying they had no solid evidence against him. German law obliges police to bring charges within 24 hours or release a suspect. The shock development means that whoever was behind the attack is still free. A manhunt is underway for further suspects.
Australia’ Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) issued a swift advisory update: “Investigations into the motivation for the incident are ongoing. Avoid the affected area. Remain vigilant in public places and follow the advice of local authorities. The level of advice has not changed. We continue to advise Australians to exercise normal safety precautions in Germany, and be aware of the increased threat of terrorism.”
Christmas markets are among Germany’s most beautiful and innocent seasonal attractions, sparkling centrepieces of traditional arts, crafts, crystal, wooden toys, trinkets, confectionary, mulled wine and spices. They are a major and increasing tourist drawcard, with river cruises and land tours dedicated to them.
In Britain, British Airways and easyJet both offer German Christmas market breaks. BA was last night reported to be contacting passengers in Berlin on its Holidays program and offering them a range of options – which will include flying home early. easyJet is also offering holidaymakers in Berlin the chance to fly home early, the Independent reported.
Descriptions of the attack evoke comparisons with the atrocity in Nice, France, in July, when an Islamist gunman drove a 19-tonne truck into crowds of families and tourists celebrating Bastille Day, killing 86 people and injuring 307. That attack, which followed similar outrages in Paris, contributed to a major downturn in visits to France.
Yesterday’s target in Germany is located near the Zoologische Garten train station in the heart of Berlin. Terrorists have tried to attack Christmas markets before. The markets have the dual advantage, in terrorist eyes, of being easy, soft targets with Christian symbolism.
Late last month, a 12-year-old boy tried and failed to detonate a homemade nail bomb in a German Christmas market. The boy was said to be German-born of Iraqi heritage and to have been “religiously radicalised”. He was below the age of criminal culpability so couldn’t be charged.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “shocked, shaken and deeply saddened” by yesterday’s attack but German officials said acts of terror should not be allowed to change normal life.
The Islamic State terrorist group, also known as ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Merkel’s controversial decision to throw open Germany’s doors to nearly 2 million asylum seekers and refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere has generated previous criticism from within Germany and beyond. US President-elect, Donald Trump, notably described Merkel’s open-door immigration policy as “insane” and tweeted that she is “ruining Germany”.
That is for history to judge. In the shorter term, German security and tourism authorities face quite a few challenges over the holiday season and beyond.
Written by Peter Needham