Attacker Drives Van Into Barcelona Crowd; 13 Dead, 100 Hurt

BARCELONA, Spain (AP/Hamodia) -
Police patrol the area after a van crashed into pedestrians near the Las Ramblas avenue in central Barcelona, Spain, Thursday. (Reuters/Stringer)

A van veered onto a sidewalk and sped down a busy pedestrian zone Thursday in Barcelona’s picturesque Las Ramblas district, swerving from side to side as it mowed down tourists and residents and turned the popular European vacation spot into a bloody killing zone. Thirteen people were killed and 100 were injured, 15 of them seriously, in what authorities called a terror attack.

Victims were left sprawled in the street, bleeding or broken limbs. Others fled in panic, screaming or carrying young children in their arms.

“It was clearly a terror attack, intended to kill as many people as possible,” Josep Lluis Trapero, senior police official, told a news conference 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.

After the afternoon attack, Las Ramblas went into lockdown. Swarms of police 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 they reported two arrests, one a Spanish national from Melilla, a Spanish-run enclave in North Africa, and the other a Moroccan, but Trapero said neither of them was the driver of the van. The arrests took place in the northern Catalan town of Ripoll and in Alcanar, the site of a gas explosion at a house on Wednesday night. Police said they were investigating a possible link to Thursday’s attack.

Barcelona is the latest European city to experience a terror attack using vehicle as a weapon to target a popular tourist destination, after similar attacks in France and Britain.

Thursday’s bloodshed was the country’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 reported arresting nearly 200 jihadists, but the only deadly attacks were bombings claimed by the Basque separatist group ETA that killed five people over the past decade.

Hours after Thursday’s attack, the police force for Spain’s Catalonia region said that troopers searching for the perpetrators shot and killed a man who was in a car that hit two officers at a traffic blockade on the outskirts of Barcelona. However, Trapero said it was not linked to the van attack.

Las Ramblas is a wide avenue of stalls and shops that cuts through the center of Barcelona and is one of the city’s top tourist destinations. It features a pedestrian-only walkway in the center while cars can travel on either side.

A taxi driver who witnessed Thursday’s 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 (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 appeared to be 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. He zigzagged from side to side into the kiosks, pinning as many people as he could, so they had no escape,” Laparra said.

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 right in front of the building.

“People started screaming and running into the office. It was such a chaotic situation. There were families with children. The police made us close the doors and wait inside,” she said.

Tamara Jurgen, a visitor from the Netherlands who had arrived in Barcelona just hours before the attack, said she and a friend were inside a clothing store steps from the scene. They were held inside until police swept the block.

“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.”

Authorities said a Belgian was among the dead and a Greek woman was among the injured at the popular tourist spot.

The attack occurred on a street that is home to Maccabi restaurant, one of the city’s few kosher eateries.

Rabbi Dovid Libersohn, Director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Barcelona, who had been in contact with the staff of Maccabi, said that nobody associated with the restaurant had been injured.

“The car got within about 100 meters of the restaurant; the people inside heard the screams, but did not really see anything until it was all over,” said Rabbi Libersohn.

Rabbi Libersohn said that the establishment attracts both tourists and locals from the city’s approximately 5,000 strong Jewish communities.

“We take precautions like everywhere else, but there is not constant fear of anti-Semitism,” he said.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau announced a minute of silence to be held Friday in the city’s main square “to show that we are not scared.” The regional government announced three days of mourning.

Leaders around the world offered their support to Barcelona after the attack. “London, Brussels, Paris and some other European cities have had the same experience. It’s been Barcelona’s turn today,” said Carles Puigdemont, the head of the regional government.

U.S. President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter: “The United States condemns the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain, 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 Thursday evening: “All my thoughts and solidarity from France for the victims of the tragic attack in Barcelona. We will remain united and determined.”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker echoed other continental leaders, saying “this cowardly attack has deliberately targeted those enjoying life and sharing time with family and friends. We will never be cowed by such barbarism.”

Spain has been on a security alert one step below the maximum since June 2015 following attacks elsewhere in Europe and Africa. Spanish police have also been involved in the arrests of more than 200 suspected jihadis since then.

Cars, trucks and vans have been the weapon of choice in multiple extremist attacks in Europe in the last year.