Spanish police intensified a manhunt Friday for suspects behind two deadly vehicle attacks on civilians, shooting and killing five people wearing fake bomb belts who attacked a seaside resort and arresting four others believed linked to the carnage wrought on a Barcelona promenade.
Spanish authorities said the back-to-back vehicle attacks Thursday afternoon and early Friday morning – as well as a deadly explosion earlier this week in a house elsewhere in Catalonia – were related and the work of a large terrorist group.
ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for Europe’s latest bout of extremist violence, which left 13 dead and 100 wounded after a van roared down Barcelona’s historic Las Ramblas promenade on Thursday. Hours later, a blue Audi plowed into people in the popular seaside town of Cambrils, killing one person and injuring five others.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared Friday that the fight against terrorism was a global battle and Europe’s main problem.
Police said they arrested two more people Friday, after an initial two were arrested Thursday – three Moroccans and one Spaniard, none with terror records. At least three of them were nabbed in the northern town of Ripoll. Another arrest was made in Alcanar, south of Barcelona, where a gas explosion in a house Wednesday that killed one person was also being investigated as a focus of the probe.
“There could be more people in Ripoll connected to the group,” regional Interior Ministry chief Joaquim Forn told TV3 television, adding that police were centring the investigation on identifying the five dead attackers in Cambrils as well as the driver of the Barcelona van.
Forn told local radio RAC1 that the Cambrils and Barcelona attack “follows the same trail. There is a connection.”
“We are not talking about a group of one or two people, but rather a numerous group,” he told Onda Cero radio.
“I am not afraid! I am not afraid!” the crowd chanted in Catalan amid applause.
But the dual attacks unnerved a country that hasn’t seen an Islamic extremist attack since 2004, when al-Qaeda-inspired bombers killed 192 people in co-ordinated assaults on Madrid’s commuter trains. Unlike France, Britain, Sweden and Germany, Spain has largely been spared, thanks in part to a crackdown that has netted some 200 suspected jihadis in recent years.
Authorities were still reeling from the Barcelona attack when police in the popular seaside town of Cambrils, about 130 kilometres to the south, fatally shot five people near the town’s boardwalk who had plowed into a group of tourists and locals with their blue Audi 3. Catalonia’s interior minister, Joaquim Forn, told Onda Cero radio they were wearing fake bomb belts.
One woman died Friday from her injuries, Catalan police said on Twitter. Five others were injured.
Cambrils Mayor Cami Mendoza said the town had taken precautions after the Barcelona attack, but that the suspects had centred their assault on the narrow path to the boardwalk, which is usually packed with locals and tourists late into the evening.
“We were on a terrace, like many others,” said bystander Jose Antonio Saez. “We heard the crash and intense gun shots, then the dead bodies on the floor, shot by the police. They had what looked like explosive belts on.”
Others described scenes of panic, and found safety inside bars and restaurants until police had secured the area.
Local resident Markel Artabe said he was heading to the seafront to get an ice cream when he heard the shots.
“We began to run. We saw one person lying on the pavement with a shot in his head, then 20 to 30 metres farther on we saw two more people, who must have been terrorists as they had explosive belts around them. We were worried so we hid.”
The Cambrils attack came soon after a white van veered onto Barcelona’s picturesque Las Ramblas promenade and mowed down pedestrians, zig-zagging down the strip packed with locals and tourists from around the world. Catalonian authorities tweeted that the dead and injured in the two attacks were people of 33 different nationalities.
Forn told local radio RAC1 the Cambrils attack “follows the same trail. There is a connection.”
He told Onda Cero that the Cambrils and Barcelona attacks were being investigated together, as well as a Wednesday night explosion in the town of Alcanar in which one person was killed.
“We are not talking about a group of one or two people, but rather a numerous group,” he said.
Forn also suggested a possible connection to an incident Thursday in which the driver of a Ford Focus plowed through a police checkpoint leaving Barelona after the attack, injuring two police officers. The driver was killed. Police initially said there was no connection to the Barcelona carnage, but Forn said an investigation was under way.
“There is a possibility (of a connection), but it is not confirmed,” he said.
The Barcelona attack at the peak of Spain’s tourist season left victims sprawled across the street, spattered with blood and 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.
ISIS said 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.
A third Barcelona suspect was arrested Friday in the northern town of Ripoll, where one of the two detained on Thursday had also been nabbed and where the investigation appeared to be focusing Friday. The third arrest was made in Alcanar, where the gas explosion in a house was being investigated.
“There could be more people in Ripoll connected to the group,” Forn told TV3 television, adding that police were focusing their investigation on identifying the five dead in Cambrils as well as the driver of the Barcelona van.
Spanish public broadcaster RTVE and other news outlets named one of the detained in the Barcelona attack as Driss Oukabir, a French citizen of Moroccan origin. RTVE reported that 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.
Citing police sources, Spain’s RTVE as well as El Pais and TV3 identified the brother, Moussa Oukabir, as the suspected driver of the van. Forn declined to comment on questions about him Friday, citing the ongoing investigation.
Media outlets ran photographs of Driss 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.
The driver, however, remained at large.
“We don’t know if the driver is still in Barcelona or not, or what direction he fled in,” Forn, the Catalan interior minister, told SER Radio. “We had local police on the scene, but we were unable to shoot him, as the Ramblas were packed with people.”
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.
By Friday morning, the promenade had reopened to the public, albeit under heavy surveillance and an unusual quiet.
Newsstands were open selling papers and souvenirs near Plaza de Catalunya, but the iconic flower shops that line the promenade remained shuttered. Vendors who typically sell counterfeit sneakers and soccer jerseys displayed on white sheets were nowhere to be found.
At noon Friday, a minute of silence honouring the victims was observed at the Placa Catalunya, near the top of the Ramblas where the van attack started. Rajoy declared three days of national mourning.
Since the Madrid train bombings, the only deadly attacks had been bombings claimed by the Basque separatist group ETA that killed five people over the past decade. 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.
Associated Press writers Ciaran Giles, Albert Stumm, Barry Hatton and Alan Clendenning also contributed to this report.