U.S. Airmen Shot Dead at Frankfurt Airport

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Sascha Rheker / Reuters

A forensic expert examines an U.S. Army bus following a shooting incident in front of Frankfurt airport March 2, 2011.

Frankfurt International airport — one of the busiest airports in Europe — was plunged into a state of alarm on Wednesday afternoon, after a man went on a shooting spree aboard a U.S. Air Force bus, killing two U.S. airmen. According to Frankfurt police, the suspected gunman — who is currently in custody — is a 21-year-old Kosovar man. According to police, the suspect stormed onto the bus at around 3.20pm local time armed with a handgun (a pistol or revolver, police say) and opened fire. After the attack, the gunman ran off the bus and into the airport terminal, where police officers arrested him. Two U.S. airmen had been killed, one of them the bus driver, and two others seriously injured.

With the motive behind the attack still unclear, Germany's media is pointing to terrorism — some reports state that the suspect shouted "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great") before turning his gun on the airmen. "We're not ruling anything out," Manfred Füllhardt, a spokesman for Frankfurt Police, tells TIME, calling reports of the gunman's Islamist outburst "pure speculation." Noting that the dark blue bus was "clearly identifiable as a U.S. military bus," Füllhardt adds that initial reports also suggested the shooter — who has not been named by police - got involved in an argument with several airmen outside the vehicle just before the shooting took place.

The U.S. has around 50,000 troops deployed in Germany, despite the fact that troop numbers have been cut over the past decade. Ramstein Air Base, some 60 miles south-west of Frankfurt airport, serves as a hub for U.S. military personnel serving abroad, for example in Afghanistan. U.S. Air Forces in Europe confirmed that the bus involved in Wednesday's attack had been transporting a Security Forces team assigned to RAF Lakenheath, in Britain, from Frankfurt airport to Ramstein Air Base.

Germany has been on high alert since last November, when the government issued a "concrete" terrorist warning, and security has been tightened at airports, train stations, major transport hubs and key landmarks across the country. But it's not just the German authorities who are jumpy — U.S. military personnel know only too well that they are also potential targets for attack. On Wednesday, the news magazine "Der Spiegel," citing security sources, said the gunman was deliberately targeting the U.S. military. (A Frankfurt police spokesman declined to comment to TIME on this report).

The Interior Minister of the state of Hesse, Boris Rhein, who visited the site of the shooting, told reporters that the gunman was from Kosovo and had been living in Frankfurt. According to media reports, the suspect's uncle said that the young man — named in the German papers as Arif U. — is a devout Muslim who had grown up in Germany and had been working at the airport.

But Rhein refused to be drawn on the motive for the shooting. "I'm deliberately not calling it an attack, but I'm referring to it as a homicide," Rhein told reporters. Shortly after the incident, President Barack Obama said at a White House press briefing that he was "saddened and outraged" by the shooting and warned that the U.S. government would "spare no effort" in the inquiry. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a news conference in Berlin that it was a "terrible event," adding that Germany would do everything to investigate the shooting.

German authorities stepped up security measures at Frankfurt airport on Wednesday, but the airport remained in operation, as investigators try to establish whether the 21-year-old Kosovar man was working alone, or as part of the terrorist plot that the nation has been bracing itself for.