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German Police Launch Manhunt For Berlin Attacker


And we begin this hour in Berlin. The news agency of the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Christmas market yesterday, calling the killer, quote, "a soldier of the Islamic State." German police are now searching for the man they believe carried out the attack. They believe he hijacked a truck and killed the driver before plowing that truck into a crowded market.

In addition to the driver, 11 people were killed and dozens more injured. A suspect was arrested near the scene after the attack and has now been released for lack of evidence. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joins us from Berlin. Hi, Soraya.


SHAPIRO: Now that police are treating this as a terrorist attack, do they know who they're looking for?

NELSON: Well, it doesn't appear they do because they certainly haven't offered any description. But what they have asked for are witnesses and any video, any tips, anything at all that people can provide police. They're asking people to call in or email in.

It's interesting because they still don't even know who did this terrorist attack. I mean we have this claim now, but the authorities have said that they are just looking for any kind of evidence that will give them a motive for why this was done.

SHAPIRO: What about the suspect they held overnight? Why was he arrested, and why has he now been released?

NELSON: Well, he's a 23-year-old Pakistani man who came here as an asylum seeker last New Year's Eve and whose claim was still being evaluated. He was known as a petty criminal. But apparently there was a witness at the market at the time of the attack who saw somebody fitting this guy's description jump out of the cab and run through what's basically parkland - it's called Tiergarten, and it's, like, a large park not far from where this attack occurred - and then all the way to a place called Victory Column, which is about a mile and a half away.

But the problem is that the witness didn't keep eyes on the whole time, so that was problem number one. The other issue is investigators didn't find evidence that this guy was actually in the cab of the car. They couldn't place him there. And the third thing was that the person they arrested insisted all along that he was innocent. He never said that he had anything to do with this. And so as a result, they let him go.

SHAPIRO: How are Berliners reacting to the news that there may be at least one armed attacker and possibly more on the loose?

NELSON: Well, certainly a lot of people are very concerned here, and the streets were not quite as full as you would expect at this time of year right before Christmas. But they continue to believe in the German authorities and the fact that they're going to do what they can to protect them. At least when you talk to people, that's what they say.

But they also seem resigned to the fact that they can't keep this from happening. A retired social worker, Maria Bruning - she placed a candle near the site of the attack today, and she said the attack wouldn't change her routine.

MARIA BRUNING: Nobody is safe because it can happen all over. You can't plan it. Stupid people are all over the world, and so it can happen all over the place. So what can I say? You cannot make the world safe. It's not possible.

NELSON: Bruning said she had just left the Christmas market yesterday a half an hour before the attack.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about the victims and how people are remembering them today?

NELSON: Well, we don't have any identified victims yet at least publicly. There were six of them that have been identified as German nationals, so their loved ones have been informed. But the authorities saying they're really struggling with not just the people who are dead but some of those who are critically injured. They're appealing to Germans to come forward if their missing loved ones.

So what was happening today, though, was an amazing outpouring of people who were coming out, were going to the square where the market was. They were putting down flowers and candles and little cards and mementos, and they were also signing a condolence book in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which is very famous in the Berlin skyline. This was right next to the market where this occurred.

And in that same Memorial Church, they ended up holding a memorial service this evening that was attended by German government leaders and also clergy from various denominations as well as from different religions. And it was an attempt to try and provide comfort where authorities couldn't.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin, thanks a lot.

NELSON: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.