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Fourth night of car arson prompts terror debate

Arsonists set fire to cars in Berlin for a fourth straight night, destroying at least 11 vehicles in the early hours of Friday morning.

Fourth night of car arson prompts terror debate
Photo: DPA

The wave of multiple arson attacks has prompted a sharp political discussion, with some lawmakers comparing those responsible with the terrorists of the 1970s leftist Red Army Faction (RAF).

Police said they were searching for at least three suspects, and have offered a €5,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of those responsible.

“The police can’t do it alone,” said Rainer Wendt, head of the DPolG police union, who called for a “zero tolerance” attitude. He said officers needed better equipment, including more thermal imaging cameras and helicopters.

Yet they do not share the widespread assumption that left-wingers or anarchists were responsible for the torching of more than 50 cars across the city this week alone. Nearly 160 have gone up in flames this year so far.

The capital’s Social Democratic mayor, Klaus Wowereit, set to defend his position in the September 18 state election, appealed on Thursday for people to keep their eyes open and report any suspicious activity to the police. “This is a case of pure vandalism and criminality,” he said.

But others have made stronger comments. Wolfgang Bosbach of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union compared the arson attacks with the start of the RAF terror campaign.

“The RAF terror also began with ‘only’ arson at on point,” he told the N24 television station on Thursday. “Therefore the danger is present that the violence is one day aimed against people.”

Dieter Wiefelspütz, interior policy expert for the centre-left Social Democrats, also told the Bild newspaper the arson attacks were the first step towards terrorism.

But the facts speak a different language, the police said. “The extreme left scene is not behind these actions, and has declared themselves not in agreement with them,” said police president Margarete Koppers. “These actions are rather frowned upon. They also have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. There is no serious political aim cannot be determined.”

And although many of the burned cars are Mercedes, Audi or BMW, the wrecks left smouldering in the morning also include older models with child seats in the back, or others full of tradesman’s tools. Next to these, new, expensive jeep-type Japanese cars remain untouched.

“For us this is a sign that there is only a pseudo-political motivation, used by copy cats, and that there is also a pyromaniac background.”

She said the last far-left attacks were against police stations, after which the groups responsible published boasting statements. The torching of family cars in other areas of the city did not fit into the picture, she said.

But with the Berlin state election just four weeks away, the CDU has adopted the topic in its campaign literature, with state party leader Frank Henkel demanding more “intelligence service resources against the militant left.” He said the state government’s suggestion that a lone firebrand was a political distraction manoeuvre.

Yet the more excitable newspaper reports suggesting that the situation in Berlin could turn into riots comparable to those recently seen in London were dismissed by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“I hope and am fairly confident that we in Germany will be spared from the events that we saw recently in London and other cities in Britain,” she said.

The police are waiting for the arsonists to make a mistake. “Serial criminals in particular are easy to catch because they always strike again, and make mistakes,” said Koppers.

The Local/DAPD/DPA/The Local/hc/mdm

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WILDFIRES

‘Unprecedented’: How explosions and fires have rocked Berlin’s Grunewald forest

An "unprecedented" fire broke out on Thursday around a German police munitions storage site in a Berlin forest. Here's how events unfolded and the reaction.

'Unprecedented': How explosions and fires have rocked Berlin's Grunewald forest

What happened?

Emergency services were called out after explosions were heard in the ‘Grunewald’ forest in western Berlin in the early hours of Thursday morning. 

It then emerged that a fire had broken out near a police munitions storage site, all on one of the hottest days of the year when temperatures were forecast to reach around 38C in the German capital. 

As explosions continued at the site, sending debris flying into the air, firefighters weren’t initially able to get near the flames to extinguish it. Emergency services set up a 1,000-metre safety zone around the area.

This aerial photo taken by the Berlin Fire Brigade shows the fire in Grunewald.

This aerial photo taken by the Berlin Fire Brigade shows the fire in Grunewald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Berliner Feuerwehr

Later on Thursday afternoon, Berlin fire brigade spokesman Thomas Kirstein said the situation was “under control and there was no danger for Berliners” but that the fire was expected to last for some time.

No one has been hurt by the fires. Around 250 emergency workers were deployed to the site.

READ ALSO: Blasts ring out as forest fire rages in Berlin’s Grunewald

How was the fire being tackled?

The German army (Bundeswehr) was called in. They sent a tank aimed at evacuating munitions at the affected storage site as well as remote-controlled de-mining robots, while drones circled the air to assess the emergency.

Water cannons were also deployed around the safety zone to prevent the fire from spreading.

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey interrupted her holiday to visit the scene, calling the events “unprecedented in the post-war history of Berlin”.

Giffey advised people in Berlin to close their windows but said the danger was minimal as there were no residential buildings within a two-kilometre (1.2-mile) radius and so no need to issue evacuation orders.

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey speaks at the scene of the forest fire on Thursday

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey speaks at the scene of the forest fire on Thursday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

“It would be much more difficult if there were residential buildings nearby,” she said.

What caused the blaze?

That’s still unclear. Police say they are investigating what started the fire exactly. 

The store in question holds munitions uncovered by police, but also unexploded World War II-era ordnance which is regularly dug up during construction works.

Giffey said local authorities would “have to think about how to deal with this munitions site in the future and whether such a place is the right one in Berlin”.

Is Grunewald a popular site?

Very much so. The sprawling forest on the edge of Berlin is home to lots of hiking trails and is even near some popular lakes, such as the Krumme Lanke. It’s also near the Wannsee and Havel river. 

Map shows where the fire broke out in Berlin's Grunewald

Map shows where the fire broke out in Berlin’s Grunewald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa Grafik | dpa-infografik GmbH

Authorities appealed for the public to avoid the forest, which is regularly visited by both locals and tourists.

Deutsche Bahn said regional and long-distance transport was disrupted due to the blaze.

A part of the Avus motorway between Spanischer Allee and Hüttenweg was also closed in both directions, as well as Kronprinzessinnenweg and Havelchaussee, according to the Berlin traffic centre.

Aren’t forest fires and strong heat causing problems elsewhere?

Yes. Authorities on Thursday said no firefighting choppers were available as they were already in use to calm forest fires in eastern Germany.

However, they also said the 1,000-metre safety zone applied to the air, so there was a limit to how useful it would be to drop water on the fire from above.

The German capital is rarely hit by forest fires, even though its 29,000 hectares of forests make it one of the greenest cities in the world.

Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin, as well as parts of eastern Germany have for days been battling forest fires.

Parts of Germany were also recently hit by forest fires during heatwaves this summer. 

Temperatures were expected to climb as high as 40C across parts of Germany on Thursday. However, it is set to cool down on Friday and thunderstorms are set to sweep in from the west.

With reporting by AFP’s David COURBET

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