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Truck Plows Into Berlin Christmas Market; At Least 12 People Killed


German authorities say they are treating last night's attack on a Christmas market in Berlin as an act of terrorism, although no group has claimed responsibility. A driver plowed a tractor trailer into a crowd of holiday revelers in the heart of that city's shopping district. At least 12 people were killed, and 48 others were wounded. We now go to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson who is in Berlin with the latest.

Soraya, we've been reporting this morning that police arrested a suspect. But now the police in Germany seem to be suggesting that they're unsure of his involvement. Can you update us? What do we know at this point about the investigation?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, this 23-year-old Pakistani who's in custody - we know that he came to Germany last New Year's Eve. He's an asylum-seeker. And he was arrested about a mile and a half from the scene. And police, as you say, they thought he was the driver - that he had fled the scene. But now it seems that this man is refusing to say that he did this. He just won't confess as much as I guess they're pressing him. And so the attorney general, Peter Frank, just a short while ago says, yeah, they may have the wrong guy in custody.

They aren't ruling him out yet. They have until tonight to release him under German law. And it's somewhat chaotic at the moment. You have the head of the Federal Police saying that he's highly alarmed at the fact that they may not have the right guy, that there may be even more assailants out there besides the one who they may or may not have, and that the gun hasn't been found.

The other thing that's concerning is they're not really sure what the motive is. I mean, they're suspecting it's a Islamist background or motive, but they're not sure. And that's why they still keep hedging about this terror identification - you know, calling this an official terror attack.

MARTIN: There was someone else in that truck - right? - a passenger who died at the scene. What do you know about him and if he had a role in this?

NELSON: Well, he's been definitively confirmed to be the original driver of this Polish truck that apparently was hijacked or stolen. He was shot in the passenger seat according to federal authorities who discussed this during a press conference just a short while ago. It's unclear exactly how this truck was stolen or how the perpetrator was able to get in and subdue the driver. But what's clear from Polish reports is that the truck company says they lost contact with the driver about four hours before the attack. And it's - so, again, a lot of question marks.

MARTIN: What's been the response from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel?

NELSON: Well, she's called it a gruesome and unfathomable act. And a short time ago, she and some of her Cabinet went to the site where this attack happened, put down some flowers. She's encouraging Germans not to be paralyzed by fear. And the interior ministry says that they've beefed up security at airports and railway stations. And they're even putting up concrete blocks at Christmas markets. Even so, it's pretty clear that this attack has really shaken up the city, including visitors from other countries. And among those visitors to the Christmas market were two friends who've lived through the terror attack that occurred in Brussels last March. My colleague here in Berlin, NPR's Esme Nicholson, spoke to them.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Karima Douch her friend Karina Akelfrej said they had just left the Christmas market to warm up inside a cafe when news of the attack lit up their smartphones. They ran back out, and I spoke to them as they stood in front of the police cordon looking dazed.

KARINA AKELFREJ: I don't know really how I have to feel. But it's strange, really strange. You see everything has come back. I'm a little bit in shock.

NICHOLSON: Douch works at Brussels Airport, and she told me she ran from the terminal during the bombing attack there last March. She was too shaken last night to say much more, but her friend, Akelfrej, spoke for her.

AKELFREJ: In Brussels Airport, it was chaotic - people crying, shouting. OK. There were bombs that exploded, so it's a different situation. But for us, it's really emotional because it happened a few months ago. And now we come here on a city trip, and we got it again.

NICHOLSON: Akelfrej says she was unnerved by how eerily quiet Berlin had suddenly become.

I also talked to a visitor from Jerusalem who was staying at a hotel near the market. His name was Zah Haviv. And he told me as an Israeli, he's had a lot of experience with terror attacks. He offered Berliners this advice.

ZAH HAVIV: It's very difficult day. But tomorrow and the day after it - and the end of the week is your holiday. Go and celebrate. Don't give the terrorists the present they want.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Esme Nicholson. We've been speaking with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, following all this from Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.