October 11, 2016 - 9:51 AM
LEIPZIG, Germany - Three Syrians who overwhelmed a fugitive wanted in an alleged Islamic extremist bomb plot and handed him over to police were hailed as heroes in Germany Tuesday, helping temper anti-migrant sentiment fueled in part by fears of such attacks.
Jaber Albakr, 22, was tied up and held by three fellow Syrians who alerted police in the eastern city of Leipzig in Saxony. He was arrested early Monday — nearly two days after he evaded officers during a raid on an apartment about 80 kilometres (50 miles) away where police found explosives.
Though Saxony has been the heart of the anti-migrant group Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, known by its German acronym PEGIDA, residents of the state's largest city were focused Tuesday on the actions of those who apprehended Albakr.
"I immediately thought: hats off to the guys who did that. It was dangerous, after all," said retiree Maria Haubold, dismissing the idea that refugees were a general threat to German society.
"They come over here to live in peace and not to live through the same things they experienced at home, war and poverty," she said.
Leipzig Mayor Burkhard Jung thanked the Syrians, whom authorities are not identifying out of concern they could become targets for retribution.
"A person who at first glance seems to have been obviously dangerous was held by fellow Syrians and handed over to the police. That's a very courageous act," Jung told The Associated Press.
"Many, many refugees are here because they are fleeing the fighters of the so-called Islamic State. That's worth remembering, and this story serves to emphasize that," he said.
Albakr, who had been granted asylum in Germany, was among 890,000 migrants who arrived in the country last year, many of them from Syria.
Worries over the difficulties of integrating large numbers of Muslim newcomers and over the possibility of radicalized migrants carrying out attacks have helped boost anti-foreigner sentiment in recent months.
In July, several people were wounded in two attacks carried out by asylum-seekers and claimed by the Islamic State group; both assailants were killed.
Andre Hahn, a prominent lawmaker with the opposition Left Party, told Bayerischer Rundfunk radio that the men who captured Albakr should be granted asylum as soon as possible in recognition of their courage.
"That would be very important for all honest refugees who need help and who in their absolute majority have nothing to do with the self-styled Islamic State or any terrorist activities," Hahn said.
The Syrians' asylum status wasn't immediately clear.
Albakr met the men who eventually would turn him in after he fled the police raid on an apartment where he was staying in the city of Chemnitz and posted on an internet network for Syrian refugees that he was at Leipzig's main rail station and needed a place to stay, German newspaper Bild reported.
One of the Syrians, identified only as Mohamed A., was quoted as telling the newspaper that he and a friend picked Albakr up and took him back to another friend's apartment, only later seeing police notices on Facebook about the bomb plot suspect.
As Albakr slept on Sunday evening, they discussed with other Syrians on Facebook whether their guest was the fugitive, and then tied him up with electric cords.
"He offered us 1,000 euros ($1,115) and $200 if we let him go. He had that in a backpack together with a knife," the man was quoted as saying. "I am so grateful to Germany for taking us in. We could not allow him to do something to Germans."
On Tuesday nobody answered the door of the apartment in the modest social housing complex where Albakr was apprehended. Neighbors noted that Mohamed A.'s shoes were missing and suggested that he might have been taken to a safe house by police before dawn, in part to evade the notice of TV crews.
Bild columnist Franz Josef Wagner opened his second-page column Tuesday with the words "Dear Heroes."
"I don't know how good your German is and whether you know our Constitution (women and men are equal, freedom of religion etc.)," he wrote. "But beyond language and tradition, you know what good and bad are. That makes you friends."
Even the nationalist, anti-migration Alternative for Germany party appeared relatively muted in its response to the Chemnitz case.
Investigators think Albakr was considering Berlin's airports as potential targets. Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the domestic intelligence agency, told ZDF television it received information in early September that the Islamic State group was planning "attacks on infrastructure, stations and airports, in western Europe, particularly Germany."
Following the "abstract" tip, Maassen said German authorities "generated a lot of information ourselves, and exchanged a lot of information with partners, until we came to this name and this address."
He and other officials were tightlipped with details of Albakr's suspected contacts with IS, saying that is part of their ongoing investigation.
"From intelligence information, there are good reasons to say that he had relations with IS," Maassen said.
Moulson reported from Berlin
News from © The Associated Press, 2016