Covid mask row killing sparks fears of radicalisation in Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday expressed revulsion over the "heinous" killing of a petrol station cashier by a customer angry about being asked to wear a mask while buying beer days before the country goes to the polls.

Covid mask row killing sparks fears of radicalisation in Germany
A police officer at the scene of the crime earlier this week. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Foto Hosser | Christian Schulz

Ahead of Sunday’s general election, the killing of the 20-year-old student last weekend in the western town of Idar-Oberstein, Rhineland-Palatinate, believed to be the first in Germany linked to the government’s coronavirus rules, stunned the country.

“The German government condemns this targeted killing in the strongest terms,” Merkel’s spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters.

“We mourn the death of this young man who was viciously shot dead.”

READ ALSO: Shock in Germany after cashier shot dead in mask row

Demmer said it was now up to Germany’s independent criminal justice system to prosecute the “heinous” crime but added the government would fight forces
“trying to divide our society and stoke more hatred”, often using social media.

The row started when the cashier told the customer to put on a face mask, as required in all German shops. After a brief argument, the man left.

The suspect returned about an hour and a half later, this time wearing a mask. But as he brought his six-pack of beer to the till, he took off his mask and another argument ensued.

Prosecutors say he then pulled out a revolver and shot the cashier in the head point-blank.

The unnamed suspect, a 49-year-old German man, turned himself in to police the following day.

He was arrested and has confessed to the murder, reportedly telling police he rejected Germany’s coronavirus restrictions.

‘Isolated case’

At the height of the national election campaign, the case sparked shock and outrage across the political spectrum as fears grow that the anti-mask movement is radicalising.

An interior ministry spokesman told reporters Wednesday that the killing seemed to be an “isolated case” and that the movement of opponents to measures
 to contain the coronavirus outbreak had grown smaller as restrictions ease.

However, he acknowledged that “some actors” in the movement appeared to have grown more extremist and potentially violent, with far-right chat rooms playing a growing role in stoking hate.

Tributes to the victim who was shot and killed after asking a customer to wear a mask. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

Media reports found the killer had also been active in such chat rooms.     

Germany’s “Querdenker” (Lateral Thinkers) movement emerged last year as the loudest voice against the government’s coronavirus curbs.

READ ALSO: Germany’s spy agency to monitor Querdenker movement

Its protests have at times drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators, attracting a wide mix of people including vaccine sceptics, neo-Nazis and members of the far-right AfD party.

Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters as he announced a tightening of rules for people who have opted not to be vaccinated against Covid-19 that the country “must clearly and decisively say no to any kind of pandemic extremism”.

‘Unfortunate’ campaign advert

Germany is in the throes of a fourth wave of the outbreak, although the daily death toll has remained in the double digits as the percentage of vaccinated people has climbed.

The issue has crept into the election campaign, which has turned into a tight race between the Social Democrats, three points up in the polls, and Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

CDU candidate Armin Laschet came in for criticism on Wednesday for a new campaign advert in which he argued that his party should keep the lines of communication open with all segments of society “even those who take a critical stance”.

The campaign video shows a recent scene in which a member of the “Querdenker” mounted the stage with Laschet uninvited and asked a series of pointed questions about Germany’s coronavirus rules, which the candidate calmly tackled.

Der Spiegel news weekly said the Querdenker member was known to belong “to the radical right-wing corona denier scene” and called the advert “unfortunate” and “strange” against the backdrop of the killing in Idar-Oberstein.

By Deborah COLE

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One injured in school shooting in Bremerhaven

A 21-year-old gunman opened fire at a secondary school in northern Germany on Thursday, badly injuring a female member of staff before being arrested, police said.

One injured in school shooting in Bremerhaven

The incident happened at the Lloyd Gymnasium school in the centre of Bremerhaven, a city on Germany’s North Sea coast, on Thursday morning. 

“The armed person has been arrested and is in police custody,” police said in a statement. The injured woman was not a pupil, police said.

They said the suspect had entered the school building and fired at a female member of staff, who was “seriously injured”.

The alarm was quickly raised and police said they detained the suspect at a nearby location soon after and had seized his weapon at the scene.

The injured woman is being treated in hospital.

A video circulating on social media and German news sites appeared to capture the moment the gunman was arrested.

A man dressed in black is seen lying face down on a street corner, with a weapon next to him, before being handcuffed by officers.

But there was no immediate confirmation of reports the alleged weapon was a crossbow.

Bremerhaven police tweeted in the morning that a large deployment was under way in the city centre and asked residents to avoid the Mayor-Martin-Donandt square and surrounding streets, in the vicinity of the Lloyd secondary school.

Local news site Nord24 said a school pupil had heard shots being fired and called the police. Pupils barricaded themselves in their classrooms.

Police launched a large-scale operation and cordoned off the area around the school while they carried out inquiries. 

By mid-afternoon, police said special forces had completed their search and the last people had left the building.

Authorities set up a phone hotline for concerned parents. Many parents had gathered in front of the school after being alerted by their children.

Pupils and staff are receiving psychological counselling.

Local media said only around 200 people were on the school grounds, fewer than normal because of exam times.

In a separate incident on Thursday, police in the eastern city of Leipzig said they had detained a 21-year-old student still at secondary school after being tipped off by Snapchat that he had posted pictures of himself with a gun and made unspecified threats.

The US social media platform alerted German authorities, prompting Leipzig police to take action.

 A police spokesman said that the 21-year-old did not pose a real threat, however, and only possessed an airsoft gun, a replica firearm that uses non-lethal, usually plastic, pellets.

‘Strict gun laws’

School shootings are relatively rare in Germany, a country with some of the strictest gun laws in Europe. But a recent spate has rattled the population.

Last week, investigators in Germany’s city of Essen said they foiled a school bomb assault, as they arrested a 16-year-old who is suspected to have been planning a “Nazi terror attack”.

Police in Essen stormed the teen’s room overnight, taking him into custody and uncovering 16 “pipe bombs”, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim material.

In January, an 18-year-old student opened fire in a lecture hall at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany, killing a young woman and
injuring three others before fleeing the scene and turning the weapon on himself.

In 2009, a former pupil killed nine students, three teachers and three passers-by in a school shooting at Winnenden, in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. The gunman then killed himself.

In 2002, a 19-year-old former student, apparently in revenge for having been expelled, shot dead 16 people including 12 teachers and two students at a school in the central German city of Erfurt. He too then killed himself.

The Winnenden and Erfurt massacres were carried out with legal weapons and spurred Germany to tighten gun laws.

The country currently requires anyone under 25 to pass a psychiatric exam before applying for a gun licence.