A fire that tore through a shelter for Ukrainian refugees in north-east Germany last month was started by one of the firefighters who later helped to extinguish it, according to prosecutors in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, who have arrested the 32-year-old man.

A swastika daubed on a Red Cross sign outside the repurposed thatched-roof hotel in the town of Groß Strömkendorf two days before the fire had led some to speculate about a political motive behind the arson attack, which caused millions of euros worth of damage. None of the shelter’s 17 inhabitants were harmed.

On Wednesday, investigators said they believed the fire at the shelter to have been one of a series of 19 arson attempts in the area east of the port city of Wismar, which included fires laid in a stretch of woodland, a heap of straw and a carport.

“As a result of our investigations, we assume that the criminal act in Groß Strömkendorf was part of a series of fires,” said the chief prosecutor Claudia Lange. No clues pointing to a politically motivated act had been found, she added.

The 32-year-old man, reportedly a member of voluntary and professional firefighting services since his youth, has denied the accusations as he remains in pre-trial detention.

Like all firefighters involved in the effort to extinguish the blaze at the hotel, the man was questioned by police in the days after the fire.

Inconsistencies between his answers and those of others alerted the investigators, who found witnesses to prove that the man had visited four of the sites where the other fires had occurred. In one instance, Der Spiegel reported, a witness had seen the man arrive by car shortly before the start of a fire and leave shortly after.

The fire at the Groß Strömkendorf refugee shelter on 19 October garnered a lot of media attention in Germany and led some politicians to accuse each other of having incited the arsonist with careless rhetoric.

Saskia Esken, a co-leader of the ruling centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD), had challenged the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to answer questions over “hatred and rabble-rousing that later culminates in violence”.

In a TV interview in September, the conservative leader Friedrich Merz had bemoaned what he said was a growing problem of Ukrainians practising “social tourism” by claiming benefits in Germany before heading back to their home country.

As the prosecutor declared a political motive unlikely this week, Merz’s CDU asked Esken to apologise for her comments.

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