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German authorities under fire as manhunt for Berlin suspect continues

Tobias Schwarz, AFP | Police patrols in the area near the Christmas market by the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedaechtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), the day after a terror attack, in central Berlin, on December 20, 2016.

German authorities were under fire Thursday after it emerged that the prime suspect in Berlin's deadly truck attack, a rejected Tunisian asylum seeker, was known to police as a potentially dangerous jihadist.


German prosecutors have issued a Europe-wide wanted notice for 24-year-old Anis Amri, offering a €100,000 ($104,000) reward for information leading to his arrest and warning that he could be "violent and armed".

Asylum papers believed to belong to Amri, alleged to have links to the radical Islamist scene, were found in the cab of the 40-tonne lorry that rammed through a crowded Christmas market in Berlin on Monday, killing 12.

One of the victims, the hijacked truck's Polish driver, was found shot in the cab.

Police on Wednesday searched a refugee centre in Emmerich, western Germany, where Amri stayed a few months ago, as well as two apartments in Berlin, media reports said.

But as the manhunt intensified, questions were also raised about how the suspect had been able to avoid arrest and deportation despite being on the radar of several security agencies.

"The authorities had him in their crosshairs and he still managed to vanish," said "Der Spiegel" weekly on its website.

The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" criticised police for wasting time focusing on a Pakistani suspect immediately after the truck assault, in what turned out to be a false lead.

"It took a while before the federal police turned to Amri as a suspect," it said.

The attack, Germany's deadliest in recent years, has been claimed by the Islamic State group.

Twenty-four people remain in hospital, 14 of whom were seriously injured.

Germany has boosted security measures following the carnage, beefing up the police presence at train stations, airports and at its borders with Poland and France.

France has begun carrying out "preventive arrests" and deploying concrete barriers at Christmas markets following Monday's attack in Berlin. A government spokesman said measures had been introduced to increase security, including baggage checks.

'Planning an attack'

In a revelation likely to stoke public anger, German officials said they had already been investigating Amri, suspecting he was planning an attack.

The interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia state, Ralf Jaeger, said Wednesday that security agencies had "exchanged information about this person" previously in relation to counterterrorism investigations, including as recently as November.

Jaeger told reporters that state police had launched proceedings against Amri on the suspicion that he was planning a serious crime. Authorities had tried to determine whether he was planning a robbery to fund the purchase of automatic weapons for a possible attack with accomplices, a judicial source in Berlin told Reuters.

But after keeping tabs on him from March until September this year, authorities failed to find evidence of the plot – learning only that Amri was a small-time drug dealer – and the surveillance was stopped.

Amri, who had arrived in Germany in July 2015, had his application for asylum rejected last June.

In Tunisia, Amri's family expressed disbelief on hearing that Amri was wanted across Europe.

"I'm in shock, and can't believe it's him who committed this crime," his brother Abdelkader Amri told AFP.

But "if he's guilty, he deserves every condemnation. We reject terrorism and terrorists – we have no dealings with terrorists."

Amri left Tunisia after the 2011 revolution and lived in Italy for three years, a Tunisian security source told AFP. Italian media said he served time in prison there for setting fire to a school.

His deportation from Germany got caught up in red tape with Tunisia, which denied he was a citizen.

Merkel under pressure

The apparent security failings in the case triggered fresh criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel's liberal refugee policy, which has seen over a million people arrive since last year.

The record influx has fuelled support for the nationalist anti-migrant AfD party, which has accused Merkel of endangering the country.

But even within the chancellor's own CDU party voices of dissent are growing louder.

"Nationwide, there are a large number of refugees about whom we don't know where they're from or what their names are. And that's a potential major security issue," said CDU member Klaus Bouillon, the interior minister of Saarland state.

Germany had until now been spared the devastating jihadist carnage that has struck neighbouring France and Belgium.

But it has suffered a spate of smaller attacks, including two attacks in July that left 15 people injured. Both were committed by asylum seekers and claimed by the IS group.

The Berlin attack was reminiscent of a July 14 attack in Nice in which a truck mowed through a crowd that had gathered to watch the Bastille Day celebrations, killing 86 people.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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