13 killed as van rams crowds in Las Ramblas

BARCELONA – Thirteen people died and dozens were injured when a van ploughed into crowds in Barcelona’s famous Las Ramblas area, Catalan police and local officials say.

The vehicle sped along the pedestrian area that is popular with tourists, mowing down people and sending others fleeing for cover.

Police say it was clearly a terrorist attack designed to kill as many people as possible.

Two people have been arrested, but police say neither was the driver.

Spanish media reports said the driver of the white van, which had been rented in the city, fled the scene on foot.

Police have confirmed that a man who drove into police officers at a checkpoint in another part of Barcelona was shot dead by officers, but there is no evidence that he was connected to the attack in Las Ramblas.

They also say one person was killed on Wednesday night in an explosion at a house outside Barcelona. They believe this incident is connected with the attack.

Police have released a photo of a man named as Driss Oubakir, whose documents were used to rent the van involved in the attack.

Local media say he is in his 20s, and was born in Morocco. However, latest reports suggest he has told police he was not involved, and that his documents were stolen.

So-called Islamic State has said it was behind the van attack in Las Ramblas, saying in a brief statement carried by its Amaq news agency that it was carried out by “Islamic State soldiers”. The group gave no further evidence or details to back this claim.

The attack happened at the height of the season in one of Europe’s top tourist destinations.

Witnesses said the van deliberately targeted people, weaving from side to side as it drove down the boulevard.

Vehicles have been used to ram into crowds in a series of attacks across Europe since July last year.

Barcelona is just the latest European city to witness the terrible effects of a vehicle attack on an iconic or “soft” target.

In Nice a year ago, Bastille Day celebrations were targeted, then a Christmas market in Berlin. In London, Westminster and London Bridge, as well as Finsbury Park, saw cars and vans used as weapons.

In the UK, new barriers have been put in place to mitigate some of the risks at key locations and there is discussion of imposing checks on those renting vans, but security services in Britain – as well as across Europe – are all too aware that there are limits to what they can do to spot and stop those planning murder in this way.

The weapons employed are readily available and there is little or no training, co-ordination or planning required. This means there are few points where individuals can be spotted by the intelligence services.

Although so-called Islamic State has released a statement saying what it calls its “soldiers” had carried out the Barcelona attack, it is not yet clear whether there was any direct link to the group or if they were simply inspired by its call to act. The language used often indicates the latter.

Either way, authorities will be bracing themselves for the possibility of further attacks of a similar nature.

A businessman from New Orleans, who was just arriving in a taxi in Las Ramblas, said: “I heard a crowd screaming. It sounded like they were screaming for a movie star.

“I saw the van. It had already been busted on the front. It was weaving left and right, trying to hit people as fast as possible. There were people lying on the ground.”

Aamer Anwar said he was walking down Las Ramblas, which was “jam-packed” with tourists.

“All of a sudden, I just sort of heard a crashing noise and the whole street just started to run, screaming. I saw a woman right next to me screaming for her kids,” he told Sky News.

“Police were very, very quickly there, police officers with guns, batons, everywhere. Then the whole street started getting pushed back.

“Police officers who got there just started screaming at people to move back, move back.”

Kevin Kwast, who is on holiday in Barcelona with his family, said: “I was eating with my family in La Boqueria market very near where the crash occurred.

“Hundreds of people started stampeding through the market… we started running with them going outside right into where casualties were already on the ground.

“Police pushed us into a money transfer shop and we’ve been sheltering there for over an hour.”

Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, said the city would hold a minute of silence on Friday at midday.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he was heading to Barcelona, adding: “Maximum co-ordination to arrest the attackers, reinforce security and attend to all those affected.”

The United States has offered its assistance to Spain.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also said consular assistance was being provided to Americans in the city, and urged US nationals to check in with their families.

“Terrorists around the world should know the United States and our allies are resolved to find you and bring you to justice,” he told reporters.

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK) Theresa May said her thoughts were with the victims, adding that “the UK stands with Spain against terror”.

French President Emmanuel Macron said: “We remain united and determined.”
(BBC)

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