Police said they had taken one suspect into custody while a Polish citizen found dead in the truck after it crashed into people gathered around wooden huts serving mulled wine and sausages at the foot of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church in the heart of Berlin.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere refused to label Monday night’s (Tuesday AEDT) deadly incident a terrorist attack, though he said “a lot points in that direction.”
“We want to be very, very cautious and operate close to the investigation results, not with speculation,” he told the ARD broadcaster.
The truck’s owner, Ariel Zurawski, told Polish broadcaster TVN 24 that the driver, who was his cousin, had been transporting steel to Berlin and had not been reachable since 4pm.
He said he was sure his cousin was not an attacker. “It can’t have been my driver,” he said. “Something must have happened to him … I am so shocked.”
German police said later they were working on the assumption that the truck had been stolen from a construction site in Poland.
The nationality of the suspected driver, who fled the crash scene and was later arrested, was unclear, police said.
German media cited local security sources as saying that there was evidence suggesting the arrested suspect was from Afghanistan or Pakistan and entered Germany in February as a refugee.
Police later said that 48 injured people were taken to Berlin hospitals.
Pictures from the scene showed Christmas decorations protruding from the smashed windscreen of the black truck. In the aftermath, it was resting lopsided on the pavement with a mangled Christmas tree beneath its wheels.
A government spokesman said Chancellor Angela Merkel was briefed on the situation by de Maiziere and the Berlin mayor. Police said there were no indications of further dangerous situations in the area and urged people to stay away from the scene.
“I’m deeply shaken about the horrible news of what occurred at the memorial church in Berlin,” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.
The incident evoked memories of an attack in Nice in July when a Tunisian-born man drove a 19-tonne truck along the beachfront, mowing down people who had gathered to watch the fireworks on Bastille Day, killing 86 people. That attack was claimed by Islamic State.
US President-elect Donald Trump condemned what he called an attack, linking it to “Islamist terrorists” before German police officials had said who was responsible.
The White House condemned what it called “what appears to have been a terrorist attack”.
Germany has not in recent years suffered a large-scale attack from Islamist militants like those seen in neighbouring Belgium and France.
But it was shaken by two smaller attacks in Bavaria over the summer, one on a train near Wuerzburg and another at a music festival in Ansbach that wounded 20 people. Both were claimed by Islamic State.
In mid-October, police arrested a Syrian refugee suspected of planning a bomb attack on an airport in Berlin. The 22-year-old man committed suicide in prison shortly after his arrest.
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