A white van jumped up onto a sidewalk and sped down a pedestrian zone Thursday in Barcelona’s historic Las Ramblas district, swerving from side to side as it plowed into tourists and residents. Authorities said 12 people were killed and 80 were wounded, 15 of them seriously, in what they called a terror attack.
The attack left people sprawled out on the ground in the city in northeastern Spain, some with broken limbs. As witnesses and emergency workers tried to help the wounded, police brandishing hand guns launched a search of side streets amid reports that at least one perpetrator and maybe more were holed up in a nearby bar.
Police immediately cordoned off the city’s broad avenue, which is popular with tourists, and ordered stores and nearby Metro and train stations to close. They asked people to stay away from the area so as not to get in the way of emergency services. A helicopter hovered over the scene.
A few hours later, Catalan police tweeted, “We have arrested one man and we are treating him as a terrorist.” They said no one was holed up in a Barcelona bar but began to evacuate stores on the sprawling avenue where dozens of people had taken cover.
Late Thursday, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the van attack. A statement carried by the extremist group’s media arm — the Aamaq news agency — said Thursday’s attack was carried out by “soldiers of the Islamic State.” It said the attack was in response to IS calls for its followers to target countries participating in the coalition trying to drive the extremist group from Syria and Iraq. The statement provided no further details about the attackers.
State-owned broadcaster RTVE reported that investigators think two vans were used — one for the attack and a second as a getaway vehicle.
Las Ramblas, a street of stalls and shops that cuts through the center of Barcelona, is one of the city’s top tourist destinations. People walk down a wide, pedestrian path in the center of the street, but cars can travel on either side.
A taxi driver who witnessed the attack, Oscar Cano, told TV3 that the van jumped onto the central pedestrian area at a high speed and swerved from side to side.
In photographs and videos, at least five people could be seen lying on the ground in the street Thursday afternoon, being helped by police and others. Other video recorded people screaming as they fled the van.
Keith Fleming, an American who lives in Barcelona, was in his building just off Las Ramblas when he heard a noise and went out to his balcony.
“I saw women and children just running, and they looked terrified,” he said.
He said there was a bang — possibly from someone rolling down a store shutter — and more people ran by. Then police arrived and pushed everyone a full block away. Even people leaning out of doors were being told to go back inside, he said.
Fleming said regular police with guns drawn and riot police were at the end of his block, which was soon deserted.
“It’s just kind of a tense situation,” Fleming said. “Clearly, people were scared.”
Carol Augustin, a manager at La Palau Moja, an 18th-century place on Las Ramblas that houses government offices and a tourism center, said the van passed right in front of the building.
“We saw everything. 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.
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!”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered assistance to authorities in Spain and said U.S. diplomats in Spain were helping Americans there. He vowed the United States would never relent in tracking down terror suspects and holding them to account.
“Terrorists around the world should know that the United States and our allies are resolved to find you and bring you to justice,” Tillerson said in a statement.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said the U.K. “stands with Spain against terror.” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said “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.
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.
Updated Thursday, August 17, 2017 at 4:03 pm