BARCELONA (Reuters) – Spain mounted a sweeping anti-terror operation on Friday after a suspected Islamist militant drove a van into crowds in Barcelona, killing 13 people before fleeing, in what police suspect was one of the multiple planned attacks.
Islamic State 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 attackers 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 ploughed 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 two men, a Moroccan and a man from Spain’s north African enclave of Melilla, though neither was the van driver. They added that the situation in Cambrils was under control.
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.
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 US-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 militants 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.
British tourist Keith Welling, who arrived in Barcelona on Wednesday with his wife and 9-year-old daughter, said they saw the van drive past them down the avenue and took refuge in a restaurant when panic broke out and the crowd started running.
“People were shouting and we heard a bang and someone cried that it was a gunshot … Me and my family ran into the restaurant along with around 40 other people.