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German Ambassador Wittig On The Berlin Christmas Market Attack

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The manhunt in Europe continues today. German authorities are still searching for the truck driver who plowed through a Christmas market in Berlin earlier this week. Twelve people were killed. As many as 48 were wounded. His name is Anis Amri. He's a Tunisian who had been seeking asylum in Germany. The government denied that request, and he was supposed to be deported last July. But he's used different names and different identity papers from different countries, which has helped him slip through the system. I'm joined now by Peter Wittig. He is Germany's ambassador to the United States. He's here in the studio with me. Good morning, Mr. Ambassador.

PETER WITTIG: Good to be here.

MARTIN: I understand you and your family often visited this particular Christmas market. Can you describe it and its significance?

WITTIG: Yes, Rachel, let me first of all say how overwhelmed and moved I am by the outpour of solidarity and empathy of so many U.S. friends and American, ordinary citizens. It's good to know that you have friends in those difficult times. And this attack on this Christmas market really hit at the heart of a cherished German tradition to celebrate this season, to go there on those markets with a family and enjoy the food and the music. And it happened at a particularly iconic venue, this church in Berlin that was deliberately kept as a ruin after the Second World War as a location to remember the horrors of war. So I went there with my family many times. It is really a symbolic venue. And therefore, it really is a symbol. And the fact that this place was attacked is just a horrible tragedy.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about the status of the search for the truck driver?

WITTIG: There is a huge search operation going on for this Tunisian national, not only in Berlin in Germany, but all over Europe. We don't know - it's still a developing story - whether this suspect acted basically as a lonely wolf or whether he was connected to a larger network. We know that he had contacts with some radical Islamist circles. And as you have heard, ISIL has claimed that he was an ISIL-inspired soldier.

We know that this propaganda machine of ISIL is always claiming authorship of many deeds. That has to be ascertained once the search operation is concluded. It's clear that ISIL will want to spread fear and chaos in our Western societies. And this is something we should avoid. There is the desire to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians in this instance. And we should not fall into that trap.

MARTIN: German authorities are treating this as an act of terrorism. Since 9/11, this is the first time Germany's been targeted in this way. Is there likely to be a longer-term impact in how Germany secures soft targets like these markets?

WITTIG: Well, as you said, it's really the first large-scale terrorist attack in Germany. We have been miraculously spared so far. And once this search operation is concluded, I think there will be a robust discussion on how we can improve the security. Yesterday, our government decided already to enhance the video monitoring of public places. That will happen.

I think we'll have a discussion about speeding up the asylum procedures and also facilitate the repatriation, the deportation of people who have no asylum claims. And also, I think there will be a discussion of how to deal with those persons that are likely to threaten public security without having committed a crime, how to observe them, how to deal with them. And I think there will be some measures that the government wants to take after it's over.

MARTIN: Peter Wittig is Germany's ambassador to the United States. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

WITTIG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.