Merkel to meet bereaved a year after Berlin Christmas market attack

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz in western Berlin’s main shopping district on December 12, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 18 December 2017
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Merkel to meet bereaved a year after Berlin Christmas market attack

BERLIN: A year after an extremist plowed a truck into a Christmas market crowd, killing 12, Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet Monday with the victims’ families for the first time.
The private gathering on the eve of the anniversary of the atrocity comes against the backdrop of angry recriminations by many of the bereaved, who say official incompetence and neglect since the assault have inflicted fresh wounds.
Last December 19 at 8:02 pm, Anis Amri, a 24-year-old Tunisian who had failed to obtain asylum, rammed a stolen truck into crowds at the market on the Breitscheidplatz, a popular destination for Berliners and tourists alike.
The victims came from Germany as well as countries including Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and Ukraine.
More than 70 people were injured in the attack, the deadliest ever carried out in Germany.
Daesh claimed responsibility the next day, and Amri was shot and killed four days later by police in Italy, where he had previously lived.
Although Merkel has visited the scene of the attack at least four times, including once to the reopened Christmas market last week, it will be her first face-to-face talks with relatives of the victims, some of whom have accused her of ignoring their needs and concerns.
In a wrenching open letter to the chancellor this month, before the meeting was announced, several family members condemned her “political inaction” and accused her of failing to reach out to them.
“Almost a year after the attack, we note that you have not shared your condolences with us either in person or in writing,” the letter said.
“In our opinion, this means that you are not living up to the responsibilities of your office.”
A government-commissioned report released last week identified a litany of shortcomings in the response to the tragedy.
Some relatives desperately searching for their loved ones were told only three days after the attack that a family member had perished, even though they could have been given early warning through facial identification.
Others were sent “bills for autopsies — including warnings for late payment, I didn’t want to believe it, but I had such a letter in hand,” said the author of the report, Kurt Beck.
“Such experiences should never be repeated,” he said, adding that Germany “was not prepared” to deal with the attack’s aftermath.
The government has paid out 1.6 million euros ($1.9 million) in compensation to the wounded and victims’ families.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas pledged that Berlin would take action “to ensure that when something so terrible happens that the relatives of victims are taken care of as well as possible.”
“We have learned from our mistakes,” he said.
Another factor keeping the wounds raw has been steady leaks in the press about administrative gaffes and missteps leading up to the attack.
Amri, who arrived in Germany in the summer of 2015, at the height of the refugee influx, registered under several different identities. Media reports citing the investigation have said that he plotted the attack from the start.
Authorities knew him to be an Islamist extremist and drug dealer whose asylum claim had been rejected and who was being intermittently monitored by police.
But Amri was never deported or arrested.
Israeli tourist Rami Elyakim, 64, who lost Dalia, his wife of four decades, in the attack, said he remembered only drinking mulled wine together at the market.
Elyakim, who sustained broken bones throughout his body and still has difficulty moving, said that living in Israel he and his family had grown used to attacks, but they did not expect terror would strike them in Berlin.
“We thought Germany was safe,” he told the Bild newspaper. “In Israel no one who was planning something like this would walk around free. Maybe the Germans are naive.”
On the anniversary itself Tuesday, the Christmas market will be closed for the day so the families and first responders who tended to victims can attend a memorial ceremony in the church on the same square.
Merkel, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller will inaugurate a memorial — a 14-meter golden crack in the ground engraved with the victims’ names.
In the afternoon, the site will open to the public for those wishing to pay their respects and join in a prayer for peace at dusk.
At the exact time of the attack, the church’s bells will chime above a sea of lighted candles.


Number of asylum-seekers in Europe plunges in 2017, says EU

Migrants walk behind a police car during their way from the Austrian-German border to a first registration point. (AFP)
Updated 35 min 20 sec ago
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Number of asylum-seekers in Europe plunges in 2017, says EU

  • Over 460,000 people applied for asylum in Europe in 2013. More than 660,000 did so in 2014
  • Merkel now faces the challenge of persuading EU governments to sign up to a common plan on the migrants

BRUSSELS: The EU’s asylum office says the number of people applying for international protection in Europe has plunged but remains higher than before 2015, when more than 1 million migrants entered, many fleeing the war in Syria.
EASO said in an annual report Monday that 728,470 application requests were made for international protection in 2017, compared to almost 1.3 million applications the previous year. It says around 30 percent of the applicants come from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
EASO says there is a still a backlog: More than 950,000 applications were still awaiting a final decision at the end of last year, almost half of them in Germany.
Over 460,000 people applied for asylum in Europe in 2013. More than 660,000 did so in 2014.
Meanwhile, hard-liners in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc on Monday gave her a two-week ultimatum to tighten asylum rules or risk pitching Germany into a political crisis that would also rattle Europe.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer’s CSU party at a meeting unanimously backed his call to give Merkel a fortnight to find a European deal on the burning issue by a June 28-29 EU summit, failing which he would order border police to turn back migrants.
Three years after her decision to open Germany’s borders to migrants fleeing war in Syria and Iraq and misery elsewhere, Merkel is still struggling to find a sustainable response to complaints from the CSU, her Bavarian allies, over her refugee policy.
Merkel’s woes come as European Union countries are once again at loggerheads over immigration, triggered by Italy’s refusal this month to allow a rescue ship carrying 630 migrants to dock.
Malta also turned the vessel away, sparking a major EU row until Spain agreed to take in the new arrivals.
Seehofer has been one of the fiercest critics of Merkel’s liberal stance, under which over one million asylum seekers have been admitted into the country since 2015.
He wants to turn away at the border new arrivals who have previously been registered in another EU country — often their first port of call, Italy or Greece.
But Merkel says that would leave countries at the EU’s southern periphery alone to deal with the migrant influx. Instead, she wants to find a common European solution at the EU summit in Brussels.
“How Germany acts will decide whether Europe stays together or not,” Merkel told her CDU party’s leadership at a meeting in Berlin, according to participants.

Popular misgivings over the migrant influx have given populist and anti-immigration forces a boost across several European nations, including Italy and Austria where far-right parties are now sharing power.
In Germany, voters in September’s election handed Merkel her poorest score ever, giving seats for the first time to the far-right anti-Islam AfD.
Several high profile crimes by migrants have also fueled public anger. They include a deadly 2016 Christmas market attack by a failed Tunisian asylum seeker and the rape-murder in May of a teenage girl, allegedly by an Iraqi.
With an eye on October’s Bavaria state election, the CSU is anxious to assure voters that it has a roadmap to curb the migrant influx.
“We must send a signal to the world: it’s no longer possible to just set foot on European soil in order to get to Germany,” a leading CSU figure, Alexander Dobrindt, told the party meeting.
Seehofer had struck a more conciliatory tone, telling Bild on Sunday: “It is not in the CSU’s interest to topple the chancellor, to dissolve the CDU-CSU union or to break up the coalition.
“We just want to finally have a sustainable solution to send refugees back to the borders.”

Merkel now faces the challenge of persuading EU governments to sign up to a common plan on the migrants.
Central and eastern EU nations such as Hungary and Poland have either refused outright or resisted taking in refugees under an EU quota system.
A populist-far right government in Italy and the conservative-far right cabinet in neighboring Austria have also taken an uncompromising stance.
Merkel’s talks later Monday with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Germany could prove crucial if she is to have any chance of forging an agreement in Brussels.
On Tuesday, she will also meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Germany.
Berlin is also reportedly preparing to call a meeting between Merkel and the leaders of several EU frontline nations in the migrant crisis ahead of the EU summit.
“It would be almost a miracle if she emerges a winner from the next EU summit,” Welt daily said.
But the chancellor may have no choice, as Seehofer could still launch the nuclear option of shutting Germany’s borders in defiance of her — an act of rebellion which would force her to sack him.
That “would be the end of the government and the alliance between CDU and CSU,” an unnamed CDU source told Bild.