BERLIN (AP) — Survivors and families of the 12 people killed in last year's Christmas market truck rampage in Berlin met with Chancellor Angela Merkel for the first time Monday, amid continued anger at German authorities' failure to stop the attack and their handling of the aftermath.
The closed-door meeting was announced earlier this month, shortly after the injured and bereaved sent Merkel a blistering letter slamming the long-time German leader for not reaching out to them.
"I know that some would have wanted such a meeting sooner," Merkel said earlier Monday. "But it's important to me to make clear today how much our feelings are with the relatives and the injured."
"Nothing can make up for this complete change in people's lives, but still we will show sympathy and improve things where they need to be improved," she said.
In their letter, published by German weekly Der Spiegel, the families cited numerous official inquiries and media reports that revealed how government agencies bungled the surveillance of the perpetrator — a Tunisian asylum-seeker and petty criminal German police suspected had ties to Islamic extremists.
Anis Amri, who died in a shootout with Italian police days after the attack, had been the subject of joint meetings by German security agencies for months leading up to the attack, but repeated opportunities to deport him were missed. Berlin police only kept watch on him during office hours on weekdays, even though he was known to deal drugs and nighttime surveillance could have revealed sufficient criminal activity to detain him at length .
Authorities managed to obtain images from Amri's phone but overlooked photos showing him with knives and a gun at a Berlin mosque frequented by Islamic extremists . Foreign intelligence agencies and German police informants warned security services that Amri, who used a dozen different identities, was planning an attack.
"I keep being asked how this could happen," said Kurt Beck, a former state governor who was appointed as government liaison for the families.
Presenting a report on his work last week, Beck urged the government to increase payments for victims of attacks and improve the way authorities deal with the bereaved. Some relatives were left wandering Berlin for days unaware that their loved ones had been killed. Within weeks, some relatives were being chased for autopsy bills.
"It was pretty ridiculous what happened," said Steffen J. Tzschoppe, a lawyer representing a young Ukrainian woman who lost both her parents in the attack. "I think the authorities didn't have a plan."
Beck also urged better cooperation between federal and state agencies in tracking suspected extremists. "The first thing the state must do now is ensure that a case such as the Amri case isn't repeated," he said.
Many relatives want to go further though, and hold officials to account for their failures.
"What most important for us is that we get certainty about who was responsible for this terror attack being possible in the first place," Astrid Passin, whose father, Klaus Jacob, was killed in the attack, told public broadcaster ARD.
For some, the buck stops with Merkel, whose decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees into the country dramatically increased the workload of Germany's security agencies, which were largely unprepared to deal with Islamic extremism.
"I want to tell Mrs. Merkel that she has my son's blood on her hands," Janina Urban told broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
Polish truck driver Lukasz Urban, 37, was the first person killed in the attack when Amri hijacked his tractor-trailer, laden with 25 tons of steel, before driving it into the crowded Christmas market on the Breitscheidplatz in the heart of west Berlin. Dozens of people were injured in the attack, which was later claimed by the Islamic State group.
In their letter, the relatives made clear they believe she shares the blame, telling Merkel that "the attack on the Breitscheidplatz was also the tragic consequence of the political inaction of your government."
The government has taken a series of measures to make it easier to find, detain and deport suspected extremists. But fears of another attack remain high, contributing to recent election successes for the nationalist Alternative for Germany party that's demanded sharp limits on immigration.
Large concrete barriers surrounding this year's Christmas markets provide a stark reminder of the threat.
On Tuesday, a memorial will be unveiled for the people killed exactly one year earlier. Each of the families will pour a few grams of gold into a crack in the ground before it is symbolically sealed.
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