Two people have been arrested but the van driver, who fled on foot, remains at large. Early Friday morning, police killed five suspects engaged in an attack that injured six people in a seaside resort town. Police suspect the attacks are related.
The late afternoon attack in the city’s Las Ramblas district left victims sprawled in the historic street, spattered with blood or writhing in pain from broken limbs. Others were ushered inside shops by officers with their guns drawn or fled in panic, screaming and carrying young children in their arms.
“It was clearly a terror attack, intended to kill as many people as possible,” Josep Lluis Trapero, a senior police official for Spain’s Catalonia region told reporters late Thursday.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility, saying in a statement on its Aamaq news agency that the attack was carried out by “soldiers of the Islamic State” in response to the extremist group’s calls for followers to target countries participating in the coalition trying to drive it from Syria and Iraq.
Early Friday, Catalan police said they shot and killed five suspects in response to a terrorist attack in the seaside resort town of Cambrils, south of Barcelona. They said the suspects carried bomb belts, which were detonated by a police bomb squad.
Media reports said a car crashed into a police vehicle and nearby civilians and police shot the attackers, one brandishing a knife. Police did not immediately say how the attack was being carried out. A police officer and five civilians were injured and two were in serious condition. Police are working on the theory that the Cambrils and Barcelona attacks are connected, as well as a Wednesday night explosion in the town of Alcanar in which one person was killed.
The Catalan regional government said citizens from 24 countries were among the people killed and injured during the Barcelona van attack.
Authorities said the dead included a Belgian and a Greek woman was among the injured. Australia confirmed three of its citizens were injured; two others were Taiwanese and one was from Hong Kong, according to their governments. Germany was investigating whether its citizens were among the dead or injured.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called the killings a “savage terrorist attack” and said Spaniards “are not just united in mourning, but especially in the firm determination to beat those who want to rob us of our values and our way of life.”
After the afternoon attack, Las Ramblas went into lockdown. Swarms of officers brandishing hand guns and automatic weapons launched a manhunt in the downtown district, ordering stores and cafes and public transport to shut down.
Several hours later authorities reported two arrests, one a Spanish national from Melilla, a Spanish-run Mediterranean seafront enclave in North Africa, and the other a Moroccan. They declined to identify them.
Trapero said neither of them was the van’s driver, who remained at large after abandoning the van and fleeing on foot. The arrests took place in the northern Catalan town of Ripoll and in Alcanar, where a gas explosion in a house is being investigated for a possible connection.
Spanish public broadcaster RTVE and other news outlets named one of the detained as Driss Oukabir, a French citizen of Moroccan origin. RTVE reported said Oukabir went to police in Ripoll to report that his identity documents had been stolen. Various Spanish media said the IDs with his name were found in the attack van and that he claimed his brother might have stolen them.
Media outlets ran photographs of Oukabir they said police had issued to identify one of the suspects. The regional police told the Associated Press that they had not distributed the photograph. They refused to say if he was one of the two detained.
Barcelona is the latest European city where attackers used a vehicle as a weapon of terror against a popular tourist destination, after other deadly attacks in France, Germany, Sweden and Britain.
“London, Brussels, Paris and some other European cities have had the same experience. It’s been Barcelona’s turn today,” Carles Puigdemont, president of Catalonia’s government.
Thursday’s bloodshed was Spain’s deadliest attack since 2004, when al-Qaida-inspired bombers killed 192 people in coordinated assaults on Madrid’s commuter trains. In the years since, Spanish authorities have arrested nearly 200 jihadists. The only deadly attacks were bombings claimed by the Basque separatist group ETA that killed five people over the past decade but it declared a cease-fire in 2011.
“Unfortunately, Spaniards know the absurd and irrational pain that terrorism causes. We have received blows like this in recent years, but we also that terrorists can be beaten,” Rajoy said.
During the search for the perpetrators, troopers shot and killed a man who was in a vehicle that hit two officers at a traffic blockade on the outskirts of Barcelona. But Trapero said the driver’s actions were not linked to the van attack.
Las Ramblas cuts through the center of Barcelona and is one of the city’s top tourist destinations. It is a wide avenue of stalls and shops with a pedestrian-only walkway in the center while cars can travel on either side.
A taxi driver who witnessed the attack, Oscar Cano, said the white van suddenly jumped the curb and sped down the central pedestrian area at a high speed for about 500 yards (457 meters), veering from side to side as it targeted people.
“I heard a lot of people screaming and then I saw the van going down the boulevard,” another witness, Miguel Angel Rizo, told The Associated Press. “You could see all the bodies lying through Las Ramblas. It was brutal. A very tough image to see.”
Jordi Laparra, a 55-year-old physical education teacher and Barcelona resident, said it initially looked like a terrible traffic accident.
“At first I thought it was an accident, as the van crashed into 10 people or so and seemed to get stuck. But then he maneuvered left and accelerated full speed down the Ramblas and I realized it was a terrorist attack,” Laparra said. “He zigzagged from side to side into the kiosks, pinning as many people as he could, so they had no escape.”
Carol Augustin, a manager at La Palau Moja, an 18th-century former palace on Las Ramblas that now houses offices and a tourism center, said the van passed in front of the building.
“People started screaming and running into the office. It was such a chaotic situation. There were families with children,” she said.
Dutch visitor Tamara Jurgen said she and a friend were inside a clothing store steps from the scene and were kept inside until it was safe to leave.
“We were downstairs when it happened and everyone was screaming and running. We had to run up to the roof and throw our bags over a wall,” Jurgen said. “We were all together along this wall and we were scared we were going to have to jump.”
Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau announced a minute of silence to be held Friday in Barcelona’s main square “to show that we are not scared.” The prime minister announced three days of national mourning.
Leaders around the world offered their support and condolences to Barcelona after the attack.
President Donald Trump tweeted that the U.S. condemned the attack and “will do whatever is necessary to help. Be tough & strong, we love you!”
British Prime Minister Theresa May said the U.K. “stands with Spain against terror” while French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “All my thoughts and solidarity from France for the victims of the tragic attack in Barcelona. We will remain united and determined.”
Spain has been on a security alert one step below the maximum since June 2015 following attacks elsewhere in Europe and Africa.
Cars, trucks and vans have been the weapon of choice in multiple extremist attacks in Europe in the last year.
The deadliest targeted Bastille Day revelers in Nice, France, in July 2016, killing 86 people. In December 2016, 12 people died after a driver used a hijacked truck to drive into a Christmas market in Berlin.
Multiple attacks occurred in London this year. A man in a rented SUV plowed into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing four people before he ran onto the grounds of Parliament and stabbed an unarmed police officer to death in March.
Four other men drove onto the sidewalk of London Bridge, unleashing a rampage with knives that killed eight people in June. Another man also drove into pedestrians leaving a London mosque later in June.