Keeping Christmas markets safe

Keeping Christmas markets safe
Police at the Christmas market in Tours, central France.
PHOTO: AFP

It is Thursday - three days after the Berlin attack - and Britain's largest Christmas market and theme park is filled with revellers determined to have a good time despite the wintry chills.

Security has been stepped up at the annual Winter Wonderland event at London's Hyde Park.

Visitors have had to queue for close to an hour on some days last week to have their bags searched and bodies scanned.

Like much of Europe, security has been tightened around Christmas markets and other festive venues in the wake of last Monday's carnage in the German capital city.

"It did worry me a little, but you can't let the terrorists win by living your life in fear," said Ms Kate Owens, 41, a health administrator who was at the London market with her husband and two young children.

"The kids would have been very disappointed if they couldn't come."

Christmas is the most important holiday on the continent and its quaint open-air markets selling hot mulled wine, pastries and handmade crafts are a much-cherished tradition, especially in German-speaking cities and towns.

Berliners and tourists have been defiantly returning to these markets around the city, many of which reopened last Wednesday, and to the one at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which was mowed down by a terrorist behind the wheel of a truck last Monday night.

Read Also: Berlin truck attack suspect shot dead in Milan

But the numbers have dwindled while defences have gone up. Concrete barriers now line the market at busy Potsdamer Platz and around the historic Brandenburg Gate, which will host the biggest open-air New Year's Eve celebration.

"There's a strange mood, a gloomy atmosphere," secretary Doreen Martens, 47, told The New York Times as she watched ice skaters at the Neptune Fountain at Berlin's city hall Christmas market.

"The festive Christmas feeling is definitely gone."

To thwart a possible similar attack involving a truck, barriers have - overnight - become a feature in many European Christmas markets, from Copenhagen in Denmark to Basle in Switzerland.

Lorry ploughs into Berlin Christmas market in possible terror attack

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    A lorry ploughed into a busy Christmas market in central Berlin on Monday (Dec 19).

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    At least nine people were killed and 50 more hurt.

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    Police said that the incident was a possible terror attack.

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    Ambulances and heavily armed officers rushed to the area after the driver mounted the pavement of the market in a square popular with tourists.

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    The scenes were reminiscent of July's deadly truck attack in the French city of Nice.

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    "A man who was apparently driving the truck was detained," a police spokeswoman told AFP.

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    As witnesses described scenes of panic and carnage, police said at least nine were killed and 50 others were injured.

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    Four people were seriously injured.

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    "We are investigating whether it was a terror attack but do not yet know what was behind it," a police spokesman said.

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    Authorities said there was no indication of "further dangerous situations in the city near Breitscheidplatz", where the suspected attack took place.

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    Police added they had no indications as yet to the nationality or age of the arrested man.

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    Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted quickly to the tragedy, with spokesman Steffen Seibert tweeting: "We mourn the dead and hope that the many people injured can be helped".

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    Traditional Christmas markets are popular in cities and towns throughout Germany and have frequently been mentioned by security services as potentially vulnerable to attacks.

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    "It's awful. We were in Berlin for Christmas", said American tourist Kathy Forbes. "We also thought it would be safer than Paris."

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    Australian Trisha O'Neill told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation she was only metres from where the truck smashed into the crowded market.

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    "I just saw this huge black truck speeding through the markets crushing so many people and then all the lights went out and everything was destroyed. I could hear screaming and then we all froze," she added.

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    Europe has been on high alert for most of 2016, with terror attacks striking Paris and Brussels, while Germany has been hit by several assaults claimed by the Islamic State group and carried out by asylum-seekers.

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    An axe rampage on a train in the southern state of Bavaria in July injured five people, and a suicide bombing wounded 15 people in the same state six days later.

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    The attack in Berlin also comes five months after Tunisian extremist Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed a 19-tonne truck into a crowd on the Nice seafront, killing 86 people.

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    In response to the suspected attack in Berlin, French President Francois Hollande said, "The French share in the mourning of the Germans in the face of this tragedy that has hit all of Europe."

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France's most famous Christmas market in Strasbourg has been the subject of tight security for years, after two militant cells were busted there in the last few years.

Visitors have to get past 15 checkpoints that protect the city, before reaching the market.

No cars are allowed near the streets around the market, while the tram stops closest to it are temporarily closed.

Paris' biggest Christmas market, which spans the Champs-Elysees boulevard, was targeted by five suspected militants who were arrested last month, said prosecutors.

Read Also: 'Blood, bodies everywhere' at Berlin Xmas market

Concrete blast blocks and metal barricades now line the market.

While jitters rippled through Belgium after last Monday's attack, the country - where suicide bombers struck in March, killing 32 people, and where Christmas markets are a big draw - has not bowed to fear.

There is tightened security at Christmas markets across the country, but its terror alert remains unchanged at three, the second highest.

The traditional fireworks displays on New Year's Eve in Brussels and Antwerp will also carry on, said Prime Minister Charles Michel.

Read Also: IS claims Berlin truck attack, suspect at large

Britain's terror threat remains at "severe", which means an attack is highly likely.

The Metropolitan Police say they have considered all sorts of possible attacks, including the use of large vehicles such as the ones used in Berlin and in Nice during France's Bastille Day celebrations in July, which killed 86 people.

Since last Monday, armed police patrols have been beefed up at Manchester's Christmas markets, which feature nearly 350 stalls in 10 venues around the city, while armed officers were photographed in Newcastle's Christmas market.

But their presence has drawn flak from some residents who said heavily armed police on the streets do not make them feel safe.

dawntan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on December 25, 2016.
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