Syrian in Cologne hostage drama had mental problems: police

A Syrian man who launched an arson attack and took a woman hostage at a German train station was an unemployed refugee with psychological problems and a history of street offences, police said Tuesday.

Syrian in Cologne hostage drama had mental problems: police
Police officers leave Cologne's Haupbahnhof after the hostage situation ends Monday afternoon. Photo: DPA

Federal prosecutors who deal with terrorist cases said they planned to take over the investigation against the 55-year-old man, who remained in a coma after emergency surgery for multiple bullet wounds.

The man had sparked major panic around noon on Monday when he stormed a McDonald's restaurant inside Cologne's central railway station armed with a petrol container, a replica pistol and gas canisters with metal balls taped to them, police said.

The dishevelled-looking man with long grey hair poured the petrol onto the floor and set it alight, injuring a 14-year-old girl with burn wounds and sparking the alarm that led authorities to quickly evacuate the busy station and stop all trains.

As smoke and screams filled the room and the sprinkler system activated, he ran into a nearby pharmacy and took a female employee hostage, sparking an hours-long drama and tense negotiations with police.

Witnesses reported that the man had claimed to be a member of the Islamic State jihadist group, and police said they were investigating whether his motive was “terrorism” and whether he acted alone or with others.

When the suspect threatened to set fire to his terrified hostage, heavily armed police commandos hurled two stun grenades into the shop and opened fire, hitting the Syrian man with multiple bullets.

When police later searched his room in a refugee shelter, they found more petrol containers and the Arabic message “God is greatest” written on the wall, but no references to the IS or other militant groups.

Investigators confirmed that the man was indeed the holder of a Syrian passport found at the scene, and said he had drawn police attention 13 times since he arrived from the war-torn country in March 2015.

His offences included marijuana possession, theft, threatening behaviour, fraud and disturbing the peace, said Klaus-Stephan Becker, head of Cologne criminal police.

Becker confirmed that “there is evidence” the man had psychological problems and was unable to work. 

The man's wife had remained in Syria, from where she had unsuccessfully  launched two asylum requests to Germany.

Germany remains on high alert over the risk of a jihadist attack, having suffered several in recent years. 

The bloodiest, claimed by IS, was a truck rampage through a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016 that left 12 people dead.

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Ancient Jewish settlement to be brought back to life in Cologne

No city north of the Alps has been home to Jews for as long as the Roman settlement of Cologne. A recently discovered Jewish quarter is now being brought back to life.

Ancient Jewish settlement to be brought back to life in Cologne
The site of the construction in Cologne. Photo: DPA

If you are a tourist walking through the centre of Cologne, sooner rather than later, you'll come across a construction site located in the very best position, in the middle of the town hall square.

At the beginning of this millennium, the people of Cologne dug into the earth directly in front of their historic city hall and found a treasure from another millennium: the Jewish quarter.

Complete with a dance hall, a hospital, a bakery and a synagogue, the quarter contains the ruins of a settlement from the Middle Ages. It is a city within a city, a miniature world of houses huddled together. 

Of course, all that is left is ruins – one needs a bit of imagination to picture how the whole thing once looked. But experts from Germany and abroad agree: there's nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Ancient tradition

No other German city has been associated with Jewish history for so long as Cologne. 

The first documented Jewish community dates back to the year 321, making it the oldest north of the Alps. 

But in 1349, the neighbourhood was destroyed and its inhabitants were murdered or expelled. Local Christians blamed Jews for the outbreak of the plague.

Currently, a museum is being built over the site on the town hall square. It will be a parallel world underground: visitors will be able to relive life in the Jewish quarter in the era of knights and minstrels on a 600-meter-long trail. The trail also visits the governor's palace from Roman times, which was rediscovered in the 1950s. 

The museum is called MiQua after the name for the Jewish ritual bath, Mikveh.

Exhibits will include artifacts found during the excavations; among them is a crescent-shaped, gem-set gold earring from the 11th century. 

The researchers also discovered a tablet dating back to the Middle Ages with the inscription “yt in ys neyt anders.” This could be translated as “Et is wie et is” (It is as it is) – a classic Cologne saying. 

The museum is scheduled to open in 2024, but through the panorama windows on the third floor of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, also located on Rathausplatz, one can already follow the progress of construction work.

This year Jewish life will be celebrated across the country – the anniversary year '1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany' will be celebrated nationwide. 

Hamburg is organising a themed week entitled 'More than Little Jerusalem'; in Nuremberg the photo exhibition 'Germany's Emigrants' will be opened; and in Herxheim in Rhineland-Palatinate the play Judas by Lot Vekemans will be staged.

READ MORE: 9 hilarious gifts Judaism gave the German language