Berlin Attack Suspect’s Flight Route Stokes French Concerns About Europe’s Visa-Free Zone

Fayçal Benhassain | December 28, 2016 | 8:15pm EST
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A notice sent by German police to forces across Europe showed Tunisian national Anis Amri, wanted in connection with the Berlin Christmas market attack. (AP Photo/Police)

Paris ( – The discovery that the suspected perpetrator of the Dec. 19 Berlin terror attack made it through at least three countries before being stopped has turned fresh attention here onto the Schengen agreement, which allows travel between 26 European countries without border controls.

Some French politicians are demanding answers from the government after it was learnt that Tunisian national Anis Amri had been able to travel from Germany, via the Netherlands and France, into Italy. He was killed in a shootout with police near Milan on Dec. 23.

Video footage in Lyon showed that he arrived in the central French city by bus from the Netherlands, and was then able to travel by train to Milan.

(Travel from the Netherlands to France may have required crossing yet another country, Belgium, although the bus trip could have also taken him back through Germany, via Dusseldorf, en route to Lyon.)

“The fact that the terrorist could leave Germany to Holland, France and then Italy shows that   Europe is too easy to cross and this has to change,” said Républicain lawmaker Eric Ciotti.

Following the Berlin attack – the killing of 12 people run down by a truck at a Christmas market – French Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux ordered the tightening of France’s border crossings with Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

Germany had early on sent pictures of the suspect to police forces across Europe.

France, moreover, has been under a state of emergency since deadly terrorist attacks in Paris 13 months ago.

Marine Le Pen, president of the National Front and candidate in presidential elections next spring, was critical of the visa-free arrangement, based on an agreement signed in 1995.

“This getaway in two or three countries without any control is symptomatic of the total security catastrophe that represents the Schengen area,” she said.

Le Pen  pledged to re-establish controls at France’s national borders if elected. A longstanding critic of the European Union, since last year’s attacks in France she has been demanding a referendum on France leaving the union.

“How is it possible that in a state of emergency, a terrorist wanted by all the police in Europe can enter France with weapons, be in one of the main cities of France where there is video surveillance, take a train and again leave the national territory without our surveillance system detecting it?” asked Thierry Solère, another Républicain lawmaker.

The secretary-general of one of unions of French customs officials, Vincent Thomazo, was angry, but not surprised, that Amri had been able to cross France.

“The number of customs officers has been cut by three thousand in the last 10 years, which is [the equivalent of] a customs officer a day. It is not surprising to have the consequences that are currently measured,” he said.

“It is now more than difficult to do our job correctly. We are not enough to control most of France’s borders and we are now on the verge to breaking,” he told French television.

Thomazo expressed the hope that the next president will increase the number of customs officials, to enable them to do a better job. Voters go to the polls next spring to elect a new president.

Luc Poignant of the police union SGP-FO said the number of police officers had also decreased under prior presidents, and they cannot do their job properly.

“France has 3,000 kilometers of borders to control and there are only 7,000 officers in charge of the borders,” he said. “But we cannot see this as the only reason for the terrorist’s run through three countries, as even before Schengen, people could cross our borders without being arrested.”

Poignant also criticized inadequate cooperation between police from various European countries.

Even presidential candidates who have not called the Schengen agreement into question are pledging more border controls and better cooperation between intelligence services.

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