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Suspects Sought In Berlin Christmas Market Attack

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn to Berlin now because there appears to be a development in the search for whoever drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin on Monday night. German media are reporting that an identity card has been found in the truck and a manhunt is underway for a suspect. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for this attack which killed 12 people. ISIS says this was retaliation for Germany being part of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq. German authorities, meanwhile, freed a Pakistani suspect who was arrested the night of the attack. And let's talk this through with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's in Berlin. Soraya, good morning.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what are these latest reports?

NELSON: Well, the reports say that a Tunisian who has several aliases - he's a Tunisian migrant. He's in his mid-20s. And according to one outlet, NTV, he turns 24 tomorrow. He is being sought right now across Germany. Authorities zeroed in on him because of his German-issued duldung, or toleration status. This is basically a temporary residency permission that's given to migrants or to asylum-seekers whose status is unclear or they haven't decided whether to let them stay. That ID was found under the seat of the cab of a tractor trailer that rammed the German market.

GREENE: OK. And, Soraya, we should say this arrest comes after German authorities arrested a Pakistani man who they thought was a suspect, but then they released him. Can you explain that for us?

NELSON: Well, here's German Attorney General Peter Frank.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER FRANK: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He says investigators had to except they couldn't make a case. First, an eyewitness repeatedly lost sight of the perpetrator during a mile and a half chase from the tractor trailer to where the Pakistani man was arrested. And technicians found no traces of blood or powder burns on the suspect and couldn't place him in the truck, nor did he have a gun. A search of the former Tempelhof Airport where he lived with other refugees also turned up nothing. Plus the man never wavered from his claim of innocence, and he had an alibi. Some Berliners like Petra Schiff (ph) were exasperated by the lack of progress in the case.

PETRA SCHIFF: (Speaking German).

NELSON: She says, "we created this problem with our asylum policy. If we'd had the appropriate border controls from the beginning, this could've all been avoided." Chancellor Merkel's far-right opponents and even some of her allies blame her decision to allow asylum seekers into Germany as well, and there are calls for Merkel to step down. Others question her government's handling of the case and whether it could've prevented the attack.

GUIDO STEINBERG: There is, of course, room for improvement.

NELSON: That's Guido Steinberg, a terrorism expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. He says because of its political culture, Germany has kept its intelligence agencies weak and is dependent on the U.S. to help it find terrorists.

STEINBERG: If the NSA gives us information about potential terrorist threats, we can follow the plots. If the NSA doesn't know about them, we do not follow the plots. That's the general rule.

NELSON: He says it is, quote, "highly problematic" not to have a suspect, but doesn't see fault with the German investigation.

STEINBERG: Berlin is a huge city where people can easily blend into the local population. And because we do not even know where this guy comes from, what he might look like, I do not see in this very concrete case that the German security authorities have created a mess. Not yet.

NELSON: The interior minister, Berlin mayor and other leaders, meanwhile, are warning people to be more vigilant.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reporting there. And Soraya's still on the line. So, Soraya, officials telling people to be vigilant. Are people confident that the authorities are protecting them right now?

NELSON: They certainly appear to be, or they say they are, at least the ones we've spoken to. And there are visible signs of increased police presence and other measures being taken to protect the public.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson with the latest from Berlin.

Soraya, thanks.

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