BERLIN — German police were staging a manhunt for a male asylum seeker with Tunisian papers in connection to this week's deadly assault on a Berlin Christmas market following the discovery of a critical piece of evidence, according to a senior law enforcement official on Wednesday.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive case, said investigators discovered the man's "leave to remain" papers in the cabin of the truck used to ram the market, an attack which killed 12, wounded dozens and horrified the nation.
He had a "toleration" status, meaning he was not granted full asylum.
Germany's Bild newspaper ran a photo of the suspect, who had several aliases and was said he was born in the southern Tunisian desert town of Tataouine in 1992. Bild reported that the suspect was known by the police for alleged physical assault, but was never charged, because he had disappeared.
Eye-witnesses described one man fleeing the scene on Monday after he slammed a truck packed with a cargo of steel into revelers at a traditional Christmas market. Although one suspect - a Pakistani asylum seeker - was arrested on Monday night, authorities later released him due to lack of evidence.
They are now considering the Tunisian man as the prime suspect.
"We have a strong lead at the moment and our officers are out on the street," the senior official told the Washington Post.
According to the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, the suspect arrived in Italy in 2012, but moved on to Germany in July 2015. In April 2016, he applied for asylum, but disappeared earlier this month. The paper said he had been using eight different names.
The paper, along with other German media outlets, added that the man had contacts with a network run by a radical Islamist known as Abu Walaa, who was arrested last month for allegedly recruiting Islamic State fighters. According to the report, police were searching all area hospitals in their quest for the suspect.
The new information emerged as German investigators raced for clues in the hunt for suspects in the deadly assault, pouring over forensic evidence and GPS data as they sought to retrace the steps of the runway attacker. They were re-questioning witnesses and analyzing DNA traces found in the truck, and well as on the body of a dead Polish man in the passenger seat.
The Pole worked for a trucking company and was delivering a payload of steel to Berlin. Investigators are currently going on the assumption that he was taken hostage by the assailant - and may even have died a hero. Jörg Radek deputy chairman of the German Trade Union of the Police, said evidence suggested that "a fight took place in the driver's cabin." As it careened toward the crowded market, the truck was not driving straight, but "in a zig zag line," he noted.
Bild also quoted an investigator as saying the Polish man - who was shot dead - also had received multiple stab wounds in a manner that suggested he may have tried to grab the steering wheel to stop the assault as it happened.
Amid these latest revelations, the country has been convulsed in a national debate over who and what was to blame.
The Islamic State on Tuesday claimed responsibility for inspiring the unknown attacker - a claim as yet unproven and possibility just opportunistic - leading some politicians to quickly point the finger at Chancellor Angela Merkel's humanitarian move last year to open Germany's door to nearly a million migrants, most from the war torn Middle East.
Yet others quickly pushed back, calling the accusations a politicizing of tragedy that had no place in progressive Germany.
On Tuesday, Horst Seehofer, chairman of the Christian Social Union, sister party of Merkel's Christian Democrats said: "We owe it to the victims, those affected and the entire population to rethink and readjust our entire immigration and security policy."
On Wednesday, Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann defended Seehofer from a barrage of critics claiming he and others were seizing on the attack to further their anti-migrant stance.
"This is no sweeping judgment of refugees," he said. "Compared to the high number of refugees, these are only very few, but the risks are obvious and we must not close our eyes."
A number of newspaper editorials and other politicians on Wednesday criticized Herrman's remarks and similar statements as premature and lacking in respect for the victims.
Commentator Jürgen Kaube in the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said such comments risked over-generalizing Muslim migrants and were implicitly turning the hateful views of the Islamic State into "the true representative of the Muslim world."
"It is appalling if there are now calls to reconsider the refugee policy as a whole," the paper Die Tageszeitung wrote in an editorial. "Why for heaven's sake?... What happened in Berlin was long feared. An act of brutal violence. The only effective defense: to keep calm."
In a new age of risk, increasingly, the debate has been morphing into a discussion on what kind of nation Germans want to live in - and how much risk they are willing to assume. Some authorities were arguing for the installation of more public surveillance cameras, as is common, for instance, in Britain, and with which investigators into Monday's assault may have had more to go on.
There were also growing calls for the deployment of more police on the streets with heavy weapons, including automatic ones - a frequent sight in France and Belgium, for instance, but far more unusual in pacifist Germany.
Klaus Bouillon, head of a conference of interior ministers from German states, declared on Tuesday that the country was now "in a state of war." He called for beefed up security at public events.
"We have to look into what technical possibilities there are to block streets ... There are big concrete blocks ... there are systems I have already requested," he said. "We also will have to increasingly work with machine guns and long weapons."
At the normally quant and picturesque Christmas markets in at least two German cities - Mainz and Magdeburg - concrete barriers were quickly erected for added security. In Magdeburg, police officers armed with automatic weapons were guarding the entrance.
Yet others argued that living a free and open society was perhaps more important, and that Germans were willing to accept a certain measure of risk to preserve that openness.
"If we want to maintain the freedom of our society, we simply have to live with the risk contained in this decision," Die Tageszeitung added in its editorial.