German police in widespread raids on ‘visa marriages’

Authorities have said that they know of at least 70 cases stemming from the same criminal gang. Nigerian men are suspected of paying for fake marriage licenses to Portuguese women in exchange for EU residency.

Deutschland Bundesweite Razzien gegen Scheinehen (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken)

Hundreds of German police officers carried out dozens of raids on Tuesday morning searching for couples believed to have created sham marriages in order for the “husbands” to receive residency permits for the European Union.

Some 41 apartments were searched in Berlin, Potsdam, Frankfurt and Görlitz. The raids resulted in the arrest of one man and four women, although the authorities said they know of at least 70 sham marriage cases involving the same trafficking gang. Police said the female suspects were between the ages of 46 and 64 and that the man was 50 years old.

The criminal organization finds Nigerian men who wish to stay in the EU and pairs them up with women from Portugal. The men pay around 13,000 euros ($15,550) for counterfeit marriage certificates from Nigeria that are shown to the German authorities along with a well-rehearsed love story confirmed by the Portuguese “wife.”

The women usually fly back to Portugal within a matter of days. According to the federal police, the purpose of the raids is to determine whether the homes look like a couple lives there. German authorities then work with Europol to prove that the marriage is a sham.

Similar raids were reportedly carried out in Portugal in tandem with the ones in Germany.

‘Fake father’ bust

This is the second major raid against visa fraud in recent months. In June, German police took down a “fake father” ring – wherein German men were paid to put their names on the birth certificates of children born to immigrants from Vietnam, parts of Africa and eastern Europe. The babies were automatically granted German citizenship, which allows their mothers to claim German residency permits.

Authorities estimate that about 5,000 of these false paternity claims are made every year. They are notoriously difficult to prosecute however, because police cannot order DNA tests and have to follow strict guidelines when probing into a suspect’s personal life.

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Alexis Tsipras and Wolfgang Schäuble praise new Greece austerity deal

Greek officials have praised their latest deal with international creditors. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a frequent antagonist in anti-austerity Athens, has, too, praised Greece’s latest cuts.

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German Finance Minister on the Greece deal

On Friday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said the latest austerity deal negotiated by his government would allow Greece to stand on its own feet financially soon. Creditors lent the country 8.5 billion euros ($9.5 billion) on Thursday. The new loan will help Greece pay back $7 billion owed to creditors by July.

“We took a decisive step leading our country out of the economic crisis,” Tsipras said on Friday.

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Late Thursday, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble expressed tepid satisfaction with Greek officials’ acceptance of the creditors’ requirements in an interview with DW.

“We always knew that Greece had a very difficult path ahead, and it will remain a long, arduous journey,” Schäuble told Deutsche Welle. “Therefore, one must not create the illusion for the Greek public that everything has already been achieved. But they are now making good progress, and we’re helping Greece.”

He added that the goal was for Greece to “stand on its own feet” by the middle of next year.

Wide-ranging deal

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the chairman of the Eurogroup, said the deal covered “all elements,” including pension cuts and a further opening of Greece to foreign investors. Labor advocates were especially stunned by the creditors’ enshrining of an anti-union measure into the requirements.

German officials expressed willingness to consider easing Greece’s debt burden through reprogramming the repayment after the present agreement expires next year. Officials in Berlin want to retain leverage over Greece to make sure that the country implements cuts dictated by previous packages.

The Bundestag must review whether the deal deviates from a 2015 credit package enough to need new German parliamentary approval.

Prolonged austerity

Those familiar with conditions in Greece over seven years of austerity were more critical. The economist Yanis VaroufakisSchäuble’s erstwhile counterpart and frequent opponent, called the requirement of a budget surplus of 3.5 percent of GDP through 2022 and 2 percent through 2060 unrealistic – even cruel.

Listen to audio06:17

Inside Europe – Yanis Varoufakis makes a political comeback

“The Eurogroup remains committed to an insane level of austerity,” Varoufakis wrote on his blog on Friday, picking apart the creditors’ statement line by line. “After those further four years of mind- and soul-numbing recession, for those Greeks that remain in the country (and who have not migrated as a result of the utter misery the Eurogroup has spread all over the land), the austerity will be a little lessened until … 2060.”

mkg/se (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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Merkel tells Abbas, two-state solution only alternative

The two-state scenario of Palestinians living alongside Israel remains the “only sensible alternative,” Chancellor Angela Merkel has told Mahmoud Abbas in Berlin. The Palestinian president is also due to visit Brussels.

Berlin Abbas bei Merkel (Reuters/P. Kopczynski)

Merkel indirectly warned Israel on Friday that its expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank would lead to “erosion of the two-state solution,” that would also put Israel’s future at risk.

“I still do not see a reasonable alternative to the goal of a two-state solution,” Merkel said in an apparent reference to US President Donald Trump’s suggestion last month that a Palestinian state alongside Israel was not the only solution.

Abbas, speaking alongside Merkel at a Berlin press conference, thanked Germany for what he termed German political and material support provided to improve Palestinian institutional structures.

Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Yakov Hadas-Handelsmann, told Germany’s “Nordwest-Zeitung” newspaper on Friday that Israel was not against the two-state solution but insisted that Palestinians return to the negotiating table, without pre-conditions.

Renewed peace efforts?

Peace efforts lead by the former Obama’s administration’s secretary of state John Kerry collapsed in 2014. One of Trump’s top advisers, Jason Greenblatt, visited Israel and the Palestinian territories last week for talks on both sides as Trump issued an invitation to Abbas.

Israel has continued to build settlements in the occupied West Bank – seized by Israel in a 1967 war – and where Palestinians want to establish their state.

Statistics on settlements

On Wednesday, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics published figures, showing that ground was broken on 2,630 housing units last year compared with 1,884 in 2015.

That figures excluded East Jerusalem, also occupied in 1967 and later annexed.

Some three million Palestinians live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israeli settlers amount to some 200,000 in east Jerusalem and 400,000 in the West Bank.

Call to find successor

On Thursday evening, while addressing Germany’s conservative Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Abbas asked rhetorically whether Israel wanted “only one state.”

“On 60 percent of our territory we cannot move freely,” Abbas said. “We can’t even move a stone or plant a tree on these grounds.”

Deutschland Palästinenserpräsident Mahmud Abbas in Berlin (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache)Can’t even move a stone, says Abbas

Roderich Kiesewetter of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) urged Abbas, who next Sunday will turn 82, to find a successor.

Otherwise a dangerous vacuum could result, said Kiesewetter, who is a leading conservative in the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Controversial report removed

Before meeting Abbas on Friday, Merkel warned Palestinians that if they wanted peace it was wrong to condemn Israel within international bodies.

Earlier this week, UN chief Antonio Guterres had ordered the removal from a UN website of a report that had accused Israel of establishing an “apartheid regime” that dominated Palestinians.

UN undersecretary Rima Khalaf resigned last Friday after resisting Guterres’ request to remove the document, which had drawn US condemnation.

Guterres’ spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, claimed it had been published without consultation with the UN secretariat.

Khalaf had headed the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), a Beirut-based UN body.

Guterres is due to travel to Jordan next week to attend an Arab summit and hold bilateral meetings expected to focus on the wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

ipj/kms (dpa, AFP, AP)

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Police raid Berlin homes linked to market attacker Anis Amri

Investigators have raided the homes of two suspected associates of Anis Amri, the man linked to last month’s deadly Christmas market attack in Berlin. Officials declined to confirm whether the men have been detained.

Berlin police stock photo (picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen)

German police raided a refugee home and a flat in Berlin on Tuesday in connection with its investigation into Anis Amri, the man suspected of killing 12 people in a deadly attack on a Berlin Christmas market last month.

Investigators searched a refugee home, where a 26-year-old Tunisian man they believe knew Amri is living.

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Police suspect the man had known Amri since at least 2015 and was in contact with him shortly before the day of the attack on December 19. The federal prosecutor’s office said there is a “suspicion that the suspect knew of the attack plans and possibly helped Anis Amri.”

Investigators also raided the apartment of Amri’s former flatmate, who they also suspect was in contact with Amri and may have even been a possible accomplice in the attack.

The so-called “Islamic State” (IS) jihadist group has claimed responsibility for the attack, in which Amri plowed a truck through a Christmas market in Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz, killing 12 and injuring around 50 people. After a four-day long manhunt that stretched across Europe, Amri was shot dead by Italian police in Milan on December 23.

The prosecutor’s office said Tuesday’s searches focused on gleaning new information into Amri’s behavior before and after the attack.

It did not confirm whether the two suspects had been taken into custody, but said it plans to provide an update on the investigation on Wednesday.

Berlin police last week arrested a 40-year-old Tunisian man over alleged ties to the attacker, after authorities found his phone number stored in Amri’s mobile phone, which had been found at the scene of the attack. He was released the following day after authorities determined he was not a “possible contact person for Anis Amri.”

Amri identified as a threat in February

German media reported Tuesday that investigators had indentified Amri as a potential threat in February last year, but determined he was unlikely to carry out an attack.

Anis Amri (picture-alliance/dpa/Bundeskriminalamt)Amri was shot dead by Italian police in Milan on December 23

Citing security documents, daily newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung” reported that German authorities had received intelligence showing Amri had been in contact with IS members.

“Süddeutsche Zeitung,” along with German broadcasters NDR and WDR, also reported that the 24-year-old Tunisian migrant had sought to acquire weapons for an attack in Germany.

However, officials decided there was insufficient proof that Amri posed an acute threat that could be presented in court.

In the wake of the attack, German lawmakers have called for tougher security measures, including increased public surveillance and expanded powers for Germany’s internal security agency.

In her New Year’s address on Saturday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said radical Islam was “without a doubt the most difficult test” facing Germany.

dm/cmk (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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Germany: Plans for security overhaul

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Suspected ‘IS’ scout for potential Berlin attack goes on trial

A Syrian teenager is accused of scoping potential landmark targets in the German capital on behalf of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) jihadi group. Shaas Al-M. arrived in Germany during 2015’s migrant influx.

Deutschland Generalbundesanwaltschaft (picture-alliance/dpa/U. Deck)

The trial of a 19-year-old Syrian national began in a Berlin court Wednesday, marking the first hearing of its kind against a deployed IS militant rather than a “lone wolf” or radicalized assailant.

Shaas Al-M. arrived in Germany as a refugee in August 2015 during the peak of a mass influx of migrants fleeing Syria, Iraq and other crisis-torn countries.

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Federal prosecutors allege that the Syrian teenager fought with IS in his home country for two years before arriving in Germany. He stands accused of being deployed by the Islamist militant group to identify potential targets for a terrorist attack in Berlin, including the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag building.

He has been in pre-trial detention since his arrest on March 22.

Charges include membership in a foreign terrorist organization – a charge, which carries up to 10 years in prison – and military weapons law violations.

Al M. will stand trial in a special state security court in Berlin, with the court having set 25 hearings through April.

Deployed by IS

In a statement issued by the court, Al M. is believed to have participated in a number of IS militia operations in Syria, handled a Kalashnikov machine gun and provided other militants with food and goods.

Since arriving in Germany, Al M. remained in “close contact” with IS militants and often traveled to the German capital to scope potential attack sites, according to federal prosecutors.

He allegedly “passed the information about the potential attack targets onto his contacts in IS,” the court said ina statement on its website.

The defendant also stands accused of arranging to “send at least one person to Syria as a fighter and offered his services as a contact person for potential attackers in Germany,” according to the court.

Watch video01:53

Germany’s homegrown terrorists

Germany on edge

Wednesday’s trial comes just two weeks after an IS-affiliated terrorist plowed a truck through a Christmas market in Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz, killing 12 and injuring around 50 people.

The attack marked the worst IS-claimed attack in Germany last year , although it was far from the only one. A spate of attacks in July saw a 17-year-old Afghan refugee wound five people in an axe attack on board a train in Würzberg. Days later a 27-year-old Syrian blew himself up outside a music festival in Ansbach, wounding 15 people.

Police also allegedly foiled two major attempted attacks, one in Düsseldorf in June and another on a Berlin airport in October.

Germany’s growing right-wing populist movement blame the attacks on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open door” refugee policy, which saw almost 900,000 asylum seekers enter the country in 2015. While some of the assailants were migrants and refugees, others were radicalized in Germany.

German internal security forces estimate that more than 9,000 radical extremists currently reside in the country, up from 3,800 in 2011. Around 550 of them are considered dangerous and capable of carrying out a violent attack.

Germany also suspects that a further 400 German jihadists are currently in Syria and Iraq, planning to carry out attacks upon returning home.

Editor’s note: Deutsche Welle follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and obliges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.

dm/kms (AFP, Berliner Strafgerichte)

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Europe on edge for Christmas after string of attacks in 2016

Security measures were heightened across Europe and beyond as Christians prepared to celebrate Christmas Eve in the shadow of terrorism. Germany’s capital, Berlin, was particularly on edge after last week’s truck attack.

Gedenken Gedächtniskirche Gottesdienst Berlin (picture-alliance/dpa/R.Freund)

Security was tight at many major European churches and cathedrals as worshippers gathered to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass on Saturday. In addition to heightened security across Germany, where last Monday’s attack in Berlin cast a long shadow over Christmas celebrations, other cities also beefed up security in a bid to ensure peaceful celebrations.

In France, 91,000 gendarmes and soldiers were deployed to guard public spaces including churches and markets. Italian police were also out in force, with concrete barricades erected around the historic Piazza del Duomo with Milan’s cathedral.

Nach Anschlag auf Berliner Weihnachtsmarkt Gedächtniskirche (picture-alliance/dpa/M.Kappeler)Worshippers congregating at Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church still feel raw after last week’s attack, which killed 12

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Berlin police said there would also be an increased presence of both uniformed and plainclothes  officers on the streets of the German capital over the Christmas holidays. Several hundred people attended Christmas Eve Mass at Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church – a mere stone’s throw away from the site of the Berlin Christmas market attack on December 19.

Tunisian asylum seeker Anis Amri reportedly drove a truck into the Christmas market that evening, resulting in 12 deaths and almost 50 wounded. The so-called “Islamic State” movement (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack, after Amri had pledged his allegiance to the head of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

With 12 candles representing the fatalities at the church altar, the Lutheran church’s presiding bishop, Ulrike Trautwein, called on the congregation to refuse to answer recent events with hatred: “We are feeling more strongly this time what Christmas means. In this place, in this location, we wish nothing more than: ‘Lord, give us your peace,'” she said.

Pope FrancisIn his Christmas Eve homily, Pope Francis said Christmas has been “taken hostage” by dazzling materialism

Religious leaders echo messages of hope

Other churches throughout Germany shared similar sentiments on Christmas Eve, as calls amassed to denounce terror and violence with messages of peace.

The chairman of the Council of Lutheran Churches in Germany (EKD), Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, said that Christmas provided an opportunity to counter the general sense of nervousness and petulance.

The German cardinal of the Catholic Church and chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Reinhard Marx, wrote that the “forces of evil” would only prevail if people allowed terrorism to paralyze their spirits.

Meanwhile, Aiman Mazyek, the head of the Central Council of Muslims, said that “we all, and religion in particular, represent reconciliation and are opposed to hate and violence.”

Deutschland - Aiman Mazyek, Vorsitzender Zentralrat Muslime (picture-alliance/NurPhoto/E. Contini)Aiman Mazyek, the head of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, said that all people of faith should stand up against violence and hate

Rome on high alert

Pope Francis celebrated his fourth Christmas Eve Mass as pontiff at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican – also amid tightened security. Following the truck attack in Berlin and the Bastille Day lorry attack in Nice earlier this year, freight vehicle access to Rome was severely limited for the evening.

Military vehicles were also positioned at strategic points of access to the Vatican, and more than 1,000 police officers and 2,000 military personnel were reportedly deployed to the area to prevent any attempts at an attack in and around Rome. Visitors at St. Peter’s Basilica also underwent tight security checks before entering the basilica.

The Pope’s mass was broadcast around the world, with some of the prayers read in foreign languages – including Chinese, Arabic and Russian – as a sign representing the unifying nature of faith and the political themes of the present.

Geburtskirche Bethlehem (picture-alliance/dpa/M.Mohammed)Christmas services in Israel took place under the shadow of the controversial UN resolution on settlements

While the pontiff highlighted the plight of children suffering in the ongoing war in Syria, Aleppo’s Catholic minority gathered to celebrate its first Christmas Mass in five years at remains of the Old City’s Saint Elias Cathedral. In neighboring Iraq, Christians congregated at the fire-scarred Mar Shimoni church in Bartalla near Mosul for the first service since the town was retaken from the “Islamic State,” who had seized it in 2014.

On Christmas Day, Francis will deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and The World) blessing to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica.

Happy Birthday, Jesus

Security was also tight across Israel, where Christmas coincides this year with Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. The religious festivities come one day after a controversial UN resolution effectively banning Israel from expanding its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Pilgrims gathered in Bethlehem for Christmas at the West Bank town’s Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born. In the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, believed to be Jesus’ childhood home, more than 25,000 people took part in Christmas celebrations under heavy security precautions, police said.

Not a silent night

Despite these messages of hope and reconciliation, acts of violence and terror did not stop on Christmas Eve, as a blast ripped through a police car outside a Catholic church in the Philippines, wounding 13 people.

Symbolbild orthodoxem judentum (AFP/Getty Images)Christmas and Hannukah start on the same day this year, as worshippers across Israel and beyond prepare for several days of religious festivities

The explosion was aimed at churchgoers attending Christmas Eve masses at the Shrine of Santo Nino in the town of Midsayap.

Authorities did not immediately comment on who was responsible for the blast. No group has claimed responsibility. The Philippines’ government is involved in fighting several armed Muslim groups, particularly on the island of Mindanao, where the attack took place. Some of those groups have reportedly pledged allegiance to IS.

Meanwhile, a woman with dual French and Swiss nationality was reportedly kidnapped in Mali. There have been no claims of responsibility in that case; despite a peace agreement signed last year, regional jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda continue with an insurgency campaign in the North African nation.

Watch video01:35

Christmas around the world

ss/kl (dpa, AP, AFP, KNA, epd)

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Police make arrests in Duisburg as search for Berlin attacker continues

After Monday’s fatal truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market, suspect Anis Amri remains elusive. Police said they have arrested two Kosovo-born brothers in western Germany suspected of planning an attack on a mall.

Deutschland CentrO Oberhausen, Einkaufszentrum (Imago/Hans Blossey)

Federal prosecutors said police squads had searched locations in Berlin and the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), looking for Amri, a 24-year-old Tunisian wanted for Monday’s truck rampage that killed 12 people at a Christmas market in the German capital.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hoped for a “prompt arrest,” adding that she was proud of the way a great many people in Germany had reacted to the attack.

The tabloid newspaper “Bild” reported Friday that three of the 12 people killed by the errant truck on Monday had not yet been identified.

The known dead were six German nationals, an Israeli, an Italian and the Polish driver, who on Monday had arrived in Berlin to deliver metal components.

Deutschland Anti-Terror-Einsatz im Centro Oberhausen (picture-alliance/dpa/A. Stoffel)Police in Oberhausen

Searching for the suspect

A tourist bus had also been searched at Heilbronn in the southern regional state of Baden-Württemberg, without arrests being made, prosecutors said.

Video footage from Monday published by various media outlets suggested that Amri disappeared after ramming the truck into the Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz market.

Berlin’s public broadcaster RBB said images showed him a few hours later at a mosque in Berlin’s district of Moabit, where the truck was hijacked and its Polish driver killed inside the cab.

The Breitscheidplatz market was re-opened Thursday, with concrete blocks placed to ward off traffic and protect pedestrians.

Watch video02:31

Family of Tunisian suspect looks for answers

Two arrests in Duisburg

Simultaneously Thursday night, police made two arrests near Duisburg in NRW after uniformed and plain-clothed officers scoured the giant Centro mall (pictured above) in Oberhausen.

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The Kosovo-born brothers, aged 28 and 31, were suspected of planning an attack at Centro, including its Christmas stalls, according to a police statement.

NRW was the region where Amri arrived as an asylum seeker in Germany in mid-2015, but authorities said they did not believe the attack on the Christmas market in Berlin and the planned Centro mall attack were directly related.

“We’re urgently investigating how far the preparations had got and whether more people were involved,” police said in the early hours of Friday.

Stun grenades

In Berlin, police special forces on Thursday stormed a venue used by Salafist radicals, which Amri had allegedly visited. Stun grenades were used and a door blown open, the “Berliner Zeitung” newspaper reported.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziére, speaking after his visit to the BKA federal police’s  Berlin office, said fingerprints in the truck’s cab and further evidence indicated “that this suspect is with high probability really the perpetrator.”

Documents pointing to Amri were found Tuesday inside the cab which had first been sealed by investigators after Monday’s attack.

Criticism of policing

Revelations since Monday that Amri had been on a federal list of persons regarded as potential threats and had been monitored in Berlin until September, has prompted further criticism of the efficacy of policing measures.

Christian Lindner, who leads the opposition pro-business liberal Free Democrats, said such people must be observed without pause, if necessary with electronic foot shackles.

Opposition Greens co-leader Cem Özdemir questioned Tunisia’s delay in providing Amri with travel documents after his German asylum bid was rejected in July.

“It cannot be true, that some countries are thankful for [European monetary] support but refuse to accept back criminals originating from their regions,” Özdemir said.

Watch video00:57

Berlin: Sense of resilience after attack

ipj/jm (dpa, Reuters, rbb)

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