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Berlin: The Islamist extremist who tried to attack a Paris police station last week had been living in a home for asylum seekers in Germany, police said, deepening fears militants might be infiltrating Europe disguised as migrants.
Revelations the man – fatally shot by French authorities on Thursday as he approached a police station with a butcher knife and a fake suicide vest – was trying to pass off as an asylum seeker is likely to trigger further debate about the vetting and processing of hundreds of thousands of people from war-torn Middle East seeking sanctuary in Europe. The man had used several aliases, and, at one point, claimed to be from Syria, according to German news reports.
Several assailants in the November 13 attacks on Paris that killed 130 people are thought to have used the same routes being travelled by a record number of asylum seekers and economic migrants. They include at least two attackers who entered Europe posing as Syrian asylum seekers on the Greek island of Leros.
Acting on a tip from French authorities, on Saturday German police searched an asylum centre in Recklinghausen, in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, where the suspect in last week's attempted attack is thought to have lived. The man, according to Die Welt news outlet, had claimed asylum in Germany under four aliases but had claimed legal asylum under the name of Walid Salihi.
German police would not provide further details. But, according to Der Spiegel, authorities had classified the man as a "suspicious case". He had allegedly drawn a symbol of the Islamic State militant group – which asserted responsibility for the Paris attacks – on a wall in the asylum seekers' home in September. He is also believed to have posed with an IS flag.
"It is and remains our humanitarian and legal duty to give shelter to people fleeing their homes because they fear for their lives," Recklinghausen mayor Christoph Tesche said. "It is also our duty – especially towards our citizens – to work very intensely together with all responsible agencies to prevent people with such intentions from hiding in our facilities."
Last week, French officials initially identified the would-be assailant as a petty thief from Morocco named Sallah Ali, but later said he appeared to have been misidentified.
Authorities now believe he might have been a Tunisian man named Tarek Belgacem, according to Agence France-Presse. After the attempted attack on Thursday, police discovered a paper on his body with an IS flag, as well as a handwritten note in Arabic asserting responsibility for the act. On Friday, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the suspect had a phone with a German SIM card.
The news the man had claimed asylum in Germany comes as that nation is reeling from a spate of New Year's Eve assaults and robberies targeting women in cities including Cologne, Hamburg and Stuttgart. On Saturday, Chancellor Angela Merkel – who has adopted one of the most welcoming policies towards refugees in Europe – said she would back new laws aimed at quickly deporting asylum seekers and refugees who commited criminal offences.
On Sunday, Cologne police said they had arrested a 19-year-old suspected of stealing the mobile phone of a 23-year-old woman on New Year's Eve. The suspect's name was not released, but police said he was a Moroccan citizen who had a criminal record dating to January 2013.
As of Sunday, police said they have received more than 600 complaints related to the New Year's Eve incidents in two cities, about 40 per cent of them "sexual offences".