Truck slams into Christmas market in Berlin. Terrorist attack?

The truck driver killed at least nine people as his vehicle barreled into the popular Christmas market at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.

REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski
Paramedics and fire fighters talk beside a truck at a Christmas market in Berlin, Germany, Dec. 19, 2016 after a truck ploughed into the crowded Christmas market in the German capital.

A truck rammed into a crowded Christmas market in central Berlin on Monday evening, killing at least nine people as it tore through tables and wooden stands. Many others were injured. Police said a suspect believed to be the driver was arrested nearby and a passenger was dead.

The vehicle crashed into the market outside the capital's popular Christmas market at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. AP Television footage showed a large Scania truck with its windshield smashed out on the sidewalk alongside the market, with a swarm of ambulances nearby. A large Christmas tree with a gold star on top was toppled over nearby in the street, and tree branches were crushed under the truck's tires.

Police said they were still investigating whether the crash was deliberate. But it came less than a month after a U.S. State Department calling for caution in markets and other public places, saying extremist groups including Islamic State and Al Qaeda were focusing "on the upcoming holiday season and associated events."

Islamic State and al-Qaida have both called on followers to use trucks in particular to attack public places. On July 14, a truck plowed into a Bastille Day crowd in the southern French city of Nice, killing 86 people. Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack, which was carried out by a Tunisian living in France.

Mike Fox, a tourist from Birmingham, England, told The Associated Press at the scene in Berlin that the large truck missed him by about three meters as it drove into the market, tearing through tables and wooden stands.

"It was definitely deliberate," Fox said. Fox said he helped people who appeared to have broken limbs, and that others were trapped under Christmas stands.

Federal prosecutors, who handle terrorism cases, took over the investigation, according to German Justice Minister Heiko Maas, who said in a tweet "we are mourning with the relatives" of the victims. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere gave no indication in a statement whether authorities believe the crash was an attack.

Dozens of ambulances lined the streets waiting to evacuate people, and heavily armed police patrolled the area. Police on Twitter urged people to stay away from the area, saying they need to keep the streets clear for the rescue vehicles.

Police spokesman Winfried Wenzel told ZDF public television that the suspect believed to be the driver was arrested nearby, but offered no further details.

The incident occurred just days after German police revealed that a 12-year-old boy from the German town of Rhineland-Palatinate tried to detonate a homemade firebomb on two separate occasions at the behest of an Islamic State member, German media reported.

German police say the boy first tried to set off the device – a primitive nail bomb made using powder from fireworks and sparklers, which proved flammable but not explosive – in late November near a Christmas market in Ludwigshafen, before trying and failing again on Dec. 5 near a city hall, according to the Local. In the second instance, a pedestrian alerted police after spotting the bag.

The boy was born in Germany to Iraqi parents, and according to Focus magazine, which broke the story, investigators have said he could have been radicalized by an “unknown” IS agent.

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David Rising, Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin, and Lori Hinnant in Paris, contributed to this report.

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