Suspect arrested after deadly German arson attack that killed a young Bulgarian Turkish family

A man has been arrested on suspicion of starting a fire at a property in the West German city of Solingen that killed an immigrant family of four in March.

The 39-year-old suspect, a German national, was being investigated for a separate incident of attempted manslaughter when police found evidence in his apartment linking him to last month’s deadly arson attack.

It is believed the suspect was a former resident at the property where the fire started. He had been evicted in 2022 for non-payment of rent, according to details shared by prosecutor Heribert Kaune-Gebhardt in Wuppertal.

The man is alleged to have started the fire in the stairwell of the building in the early hours of March 25. A young Bulgarian Turkish couple, Ismail Kuncho Zhilov (29), his wife Kiymet Katya Zhilov (28), and their two children – 3-year-old Gizem Galia and Elis Emily, a 5-month-old baby – who lived in the attic of the property, became trapped by the fire and died. Many others were injured, some critically.

A fortnight after the fatal fire, the suspect is accused of trying to kill another person with a machete in Solingen, leaving the victim with life-threatening injuries. According to local press reports, the violent attack was the result of a failed drug deal and an arrest warrant was issued against the suspect.

When investigators searched his flat in relation to the manslaughter case, they also came across incriminating evidence linking the suspect to the arson attack. The police have reportedly stated the suspect was captured on surveillance cameras near to the crime scene at the time of the fire displaying suspicious behaviour.

The motive for the arson attack by the suspect is currently unclear, but initial searches of his apartment found no indication of xenophobia, the police and prosecutor said.

However, rights groups, immigrant organisations and the Turkish authorities have called for a thorough and transparent investigation, stressing that authorities should investigate all possible motives into the arson, including racism and anti-immigration.

In recent years, Germany has seen a massive rise in populist politicians and far-right groups who have given rise to racism and anti-immigrant sentiment across the country.

“Deliberate arson” – fire spread within minutes

A preliminary investigation into the fatal fire that broke out at the four-storey building in the early hours of Monday, 25 March, found evidence of the use of an accelerant, indicating “deliberate arson”, Heribert Kaune-Gebhard, the public prosecutor from nearby Wuppertal, had told reporters a few weeks ago.

The fire is believed to have broken out at around 2.50am with accelerant found in the wooden stairwell on the ground floor causing the fire to spread rapidly upwards.

The multi-storey property is typical of others in its neighbourhood in the old town of Solingen, which is divided into apartments.

Almost all of the residents of the building were immigrants, including the Zhilov family of four, who all perished in the fire. A further 21 people sustained injuries of varying severity, with at least nine hospitalised after being critically injured.

Eyewitnesses said the fire had reached the roof of the building in minutes and was so intense it was impossible for people to leave the building from downstairs. Some of the residents jumped from upper floors in a bid to escape.

Around 100 firefighters tackled the blaze overnight, bringing the fire under control after six hours. The full extent of the damage to the building, made uninhabitable by the fire, was visible the following day.

Zhilov family laid to rest in Bulgaria

A funeral for the Zhilov family took place at a mosque in central Solingen eight days after the blaze, on 2 April, and was attended by over one hundred people from the local community.

The bodies were later transported to Bulgaria, where they were laid to rest in the family’s native Kostievo village near Plovdiv, Bulgaria, with the assistance of the Diyanet Foundation’s Funeral Transport Assistance Fund and the Bulgarian Muslim Community’s support.

The funeral ceremony in the village commenced with a prayer led by Filibe Regional Mufti Taner Veli, who said: “Today, we face a great tragedy, a disaster for Bulgaria and the Filibe region. This massacre, and arson, is an act that goes beyond humanity, one that has no place in any religion.”

Celal Faik, Secretary-General of the Bulgarian Muslim Community, went further describing the fatal fire as “a racist attack, a neo-Nazi attack, an Islamophobic attack.”

Solingen’s Turkish and Bulgarian community members have since staged a march calling for justice for the Zhilov family.

Solingen’s painful neo-Nazi legacy

The city already has a painful legacy from an arson attack by neo-Nazis in May 1993, which killed two women and three girls, while injuring 14 others, some of them severely.

The arson attack was among the worst of a series of violent xenophobic attacks that took place across Germany at the time.

Four suspects were apprehended and brought to trial, three of them teenagers. All four were convicted of murder, attempted murder and arson, receiving sentences of between 10 and 15 years reflecting their relatively young ages.

Germany has seen a rise in racism and xenophobia in recent years, prompting the Turkish authorities to raise concerns about the possible motive for the arson attack.