BERLIN — Targeting foreigners, a man repeatedly drove his car at pedestrians celebrating New Year’s Eve in western Germany, injuring four people before being arrested, the police and prosecutors said Tuesday.
The suspect made comments disparaging of foreigners when the police detained and questioned him, Herbert Reul, interior minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the attacks took place, told reporters on Tuesday.
“This is a case of a German deliberately driving into groups of people, people who for the most part were foreigners,” Mr. Reul said. “That means this man clearly intended to kill foreigners.”
At least three adults and one child, among them a Syrian and an Afghan, were struck and severely injured, officials said.
The 50-year-old suspect, whose name was not released, had a history of psychiatric illness but no previous police record or known affiliation with far-right extremist groups, said Friederike Zurhausen, the police chief for the area where the first attacks took place.
At 11:40 p.m., the attacker appeared to target a pedestrian on a main artery in Bottrop, a city in the culturally diverse, industrial Ruhr region, the authorities said. People in the street were able to flee and no one was injured.
He then drove his silver Mercedes toward the city’s main square, where people were lighting fireworks to celebrate the New Year. There, he struck the four victims, including a woman who remains in life-threatening condition, Mr. Reul said.
The man then fled to Essen, a larger city nearby, where he tried to steer into a group of people waiting at a bus stop, officials said. They noticed his erratic driving and were able to flee and alerted the police, who apprehended the suspect shortly afterward.
Tensions between Germans and foreigners have increased in Germany since the arrival of more than 1 million people in 2015, most of them fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and seeking asylum in Europe’s largest economy.
Although the country has successfully absorbed a majority of new arrivals, a series of violent incidents has highlighted the frictions and fueled mistrust on both sides.
As 2016 began, men described as North African or Arabic in appearance assaulted hundreds of women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Near the end of that year, a truck attack at a Berlin Christmas market killed 12 people and injured 48.
At the same time, the number of attacks on immigrants by far-right extremists has increased, fueled in part by a rise in anti-foreigner rhetoric by the Alternative for Germany party, the country’s strongest opposition force.
The newly appointed chief of domestic security, Thomas Haldenwang, said last month he would double the number of agents focused on fighting the far-right extremists.