Spain: Gov’t Hunts Driver Who Killed 13 in Barcelona, Says Bomb Plot Foiled

BARCELONA (Reuters) -
Police investigate at the scene of an attack in Cambrils, south of Barcelona, Spain, Friday. (Reuters/Stinger)

Spain mounted a sweeping antiterrorism operation on Friday after a suspected Islamist terrorist drove a van into crowds in Barcelona, killing 13 people, in what police suspect was one of a planned wave of attacks.

The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for the deadly rampage along the city’s most famous avenue on Thursday, which was packed with tourists taking an afternoon stroll. The death toll could rise, with more than 100 injured, authorities said.

As security forces hunted for the van’s driver, who was seen escaping on foot, police said they had killed five terrorists on Thursday night in Cambrils, a town south of Barcelona, to thwart a separate attack using explosive belts.

Six civilians and a police officer were injured in Cambrils when the attackers ran them over in a car, before police shot them dead and carried out controlled explosions. Police said the Cambrils incident was linked to the van attack in Barcelona.

Before the van plowed into the tree-lined walkway of Las Ramblas, one person was killed in an explosion in a house in a separate town southwest of Barcelona, police said. Residents there were preparing explosives, a police source added.

Police said they had arrested a Moroccan and a man from Spain’s north African enclave of Melilla, though neither was the van driver. A third man was arrested in the town of Ripoll on Friday in connection with the attack.

It was still not clear how many people had been involved in the van attack and other incidents on Thursday.

Witnesses to the van attack said the white vehicle had zigzagged at high speed down Las Ramblas, ramming pedestrians and cyclists, sending some hurtling through the air and leaving bodies strewn in its wake.

The injured and dead came from 24 different countries, the Catalán government said on Friday in a statement, ranging from France and Germany to Pakistan and the Philippines. Spanish media said several children were killed.

Islamic State’s Amaq news agency said: “The perpetrators of the Barcelona attack are soldiers of the Islamic State and carried out the operation in response to calls for targeting coalition states” – a reference to a U.S.-led coalition against the Sunni militant group.

Spain has several hundred soldiers in Iraq providing training to local forces in the fight against Islamic State, but they are not involved in ground operations.

The Islamic State claim could not immediately be verified.

If the involvement of Islamist terrorists is confirmed, it would be the latest in a string of attacks in the past 13 months in which they have used vehicles to bring carnage to the streets of European cities.

That modus operandi – crude, deadly and very hard to prevent – has killed well over 100 people in Nice, Berlin, London and Stockholm.

It was the deadliest attack in Spain since March 2004, when Islamist terrorists placed bombs on commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,800.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced three days of official mourning for what he called a “jihadist attack.”

Police said the two men detained on Thursday had been arrested in two towns, Ripoll and Alcanar, both in the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital.

An explosion also occurred in the town of Álcanar, in the early hours of Thursday. One person died and another was injured in that incident, police said.

Police said they also shot dead on Thursday a man who had driven a car into a police checkpoint in Barcelona, though they had no evidence that he was connected with the van attack.

The atmosphere on Las Ramblas was subdued on Friday morning, as media crews mingled with tourists. Police tape cordoned off some areas of the avenue.

The incident took place at the height of the tourist season in Barcelona, which is one of Europe’s top travel destinations with at least 11 million visitors a year.

Authorities in Vic, a small town outside Barcelona, said a van had been found there in connection with the attack. Spanish media had earlier reported that a second van had been hired as a getaway vehicle.

Barcelona is the capital of the wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia, which plans to hold a popular vote on Oct. 1 on whether it should secede from Spain. The central government says the vote cannot go ahead because it is unconstitutional.

Before Thursday’s attack, government data showed that police had arrested 11 suspected terrorists in the Barcelona area so far this year, more than anywhere else in Spain.