Germany remembers victims of Berlin Xmas market attack


Berlin (AFP)

Germany will commemorate later Tuesday the victims of last year's devastating Christmas market attack in Berlin that claimed 12 lives and wounded 70 others, with questions still unsettled about whether the truck assault could have been prevented.

The popular Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz will stay shut all day out of respect for those mowed down by failed Tunisian asylum seeker Anis Amri, while a private memorial will be held for families of the victims and emergency workers.

The solemn commemoration comes a day after Chancellor Angela Merkel's met with relatives of victims for the first time, after she came under fire for failing to reach out to them sooner.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will address the ceremony in a church on the same square, which will be followed by the inauguration of a memorial -- a 14-metre (46-foot) golden crack in the ground engraved with the victims' names.

In the evening, members of the public can join in an ecumenical prayer, and at 8:02 pm (1902 GMT) -- the exact time when Amri rammed his truck into the crowded square a year ago, the church's bells will chime for 12 minutes.

Amri himself was shot and killed four days after the attack by police in Italy, where he had previously lived.

Kurt Beck, who was commissioned by the government to look into the handling of the aftermath of the assault, acknowledged that Monday's meeting between Merkel and the bereaved came too late.

It was "no ill will, but a misjudgement," Beck told public broadcaster ZDF, noting that neither Germany, nor the chancellor, were prepared for the attack.

Acknowledging the criticism, Merkel said: "It is clear to me that their suffering, this complete transformation of their lives cannot be put right.

"But nevertheless we can show compassion and will improve the things that must be improved."

- 'Hiding is no alternative' -

Beck last week also outlined Germany's clumsy handling of the tragedy, including taking up to three days to inform anxious relatives that their loved ones had perished and even sending the bereaved autopsy bills complete with late payment warnings.

Police also faced fierce criticism as it emerged that Amri, who arrived in Germany in the summer of 2015 and registered under several different identities, should have been deported.

On Sunday, Welt am Sonntag reported that the Tunisian had been under closer surveillance by Germany's secret service than previously thought, and suggested that authorities may have left him free in order to detect his instigators.

Meanwhile revellers have returned to the Christmas market even though memories of last year's attack still loom large.

"It's a strange feeling to see the memorial. Like the security bollards which are everywhere also, they remind you of what happened a year ago," said Dagmar Blume, 56, who had travelled to Berlin from the central German city of Braunschweig.

Marcel Knauer, 29, had come to the square with his mother to lay flowers, adding to the sea of bouquets, photos and candles at the site of the attack.

"It's an emotional moment to be here," said Knauer, whose mother lives near the square.

But for many, there was no question of staying away.

Klaus Breitkopf, 62, said he felt safe.

"Hiding is no alternative," he said.