Spain attacks: Huge manhunt after 14 die in 12 hours of horror

Posted at 7:13 AM, Aug 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-18 07:13:13-04

A wide-ranging anti-terror operation was underway in Spain on Friday after police killed five men wearing fake suicide belts in a town south of Barcelona, hours after a van mowed down dozens of people in the heart of the city.

In the early hours of Friday morning, police intercepted a group of five attackers in Cambrils, 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Barcelona. All five were shot dead.

Hours earlier, at about 5 p.m. on Thursday, a white van careered into terrified crowds on Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s feted thoroughfare, when the street was packed with locals and tourists. At least 13 people were killed and more than 100 injured. The driver of the van fled on foot and was believed to be still at large on Friday.

Joaquim Forn, the Catalan Interior Minister, said the two attacks were linked to another, previously unreported incident on Wednesday evening when one person was killed after an explosion at a house in Alcanar, south of Barcelona. Police said the victim was a Spanish national.

Three people have been arrested — one in Alcanar and two in Ripoll.

Sombre crowds gathered Friday morning for a moment’s silence led by King Felipe, the Spanish head of state, at Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya — near where the attack began. After the silence, those present joined together in lengthy applause. “We are not afraid, we won’t forget,” they chanted.

Latest developments:

— A woman has died after being injured in the second attack, in Cambrils, Catalan emergency services said, taking the number of dead in both attacks to 14.

— Police said one of the three people arrested was Moroccan and another was from Spain’s north African enclave of Melilla, Reuters reported. Neither was the driver of the van used in the Barcelona attack. The third man was arrested in Ripoll on Friday.

— The Catalan Interior Minister said the incidents were linked either by common action or family connections. It was unclear how many people were involved, and how many suspects were still on the run.

— Police were still on the scene in Cambrils after they shot five terrorists dead. A number of controlled explosions were carried out. Las Ramblas reopened Friday after police cleared the area.

— People from at least 24 countries are among the injured, according to the Catalonia government, including dozens of French citizens. A Belgian and two Italians have been confirmed as among the 13 dead. One of the Italians was named by his employer as Bruno Gulotta.

— Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy labeled the Barcelona attack “jihadi terrorism.” Rajoy’s government has declared three days of mourning across Spain.

Shootout in Cambrils

Details of the incident in Cambrils were still sketchy on Friday morning. According to a spokeswoman for Catalonia’s president, police engaged in a shootout with five alleged terrorists after they drove an Audi A3 into several pedestrians, fatally injuring one. It was unclear how the incident began.

Photos showed the black Audi, flipped upside down with its windows smashed out, being removed from the scene.

Alex Folch, 28, told CNN he saw the immediate aftermath of the shootout from his holiday apartment on the fifth floor of the Club Nautic Cambrils, on the Consulat de Mar.

He said he saw three people lying on the ground surrounded by police, one with what appeared to be “a metallic kind of belt” around the waist.

Folch said he could see snipers on the roof beside him and later heard controlled explosions conducted by police.

Carnage in Barcelona

The first attack began at about 5 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, in one of Barcelona’s most popular tourist districts.

A white van with blue markings drove into a packed crowd of locals and visitors enjoying an afternoon along Las Ramblas, a predominantly pedestrian area full of cafes, bars and street performers.

“I saw people flying into the air and everyone was running into the shops on either side,” witness Ali Shirazinia told CNN. He saw the van drive past him.

Shirazinia said the driver appeared to be driving “in a zig-zag motion” as fast as he could, trying to hit as many people as possible. “It was just a really, really horrific scene of immediate carnage,” he said.

More than a dozen people were killed, with the death toll expected to rise, while about 100 others were injured.

The ISIS media wing, Amaq, has said the Barcelona attackers were “soldiers of the Islamic State,” but stopped short of explicitly claiming responsibility for the attacks or providing evidence for their claims.

Police later shot dead the driver of a car at a checkpoint in Barcelona, but said he was not the perpetrator of the attack on Las Ramblas.

Explosion in Alcanar

Catalan police said overnight they were “working under the hypothesis that the terrorists taken down in Cambrils were related to the events that took place in Barcelona and Alcanar.”

The explosion in Alcanar on Wednesday night left seven people injured, one seriously, as well as causing the death of a Spanish national.

A house collapsed completely under the force of the blast, a Catalan fire department statement said. Authorities have not yet confirmed what caused the explosion.

One of the suspects arrested in connection with Thursday’s Barcelona attack was detained in Alcanar, Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero told reporters.

Shock, fear in Barcelona

Las Ramblas reopened Friday morning but reminders of the previous day’s horror were all around.

In some outdoor cafés, full glasses of beer and sangria sat out on tables, left behind after people scattered. Overturned chairs and napkins were strewn on the street. Waiters were beginning to pick up the pieces as restaurants opened.

Flowers, candles and messages of solidarity began to pile up at a makeshift shrine.

Some shocked residents and tourists had come to the normally bustling avenue to pay their respects to the attack victims.

Among them were Rania and her husband Ali, visiting from Israel. The pair, who did not give their last names, said they were now considering cutting their trip short.

“Yesterday I told my husband that I was worried that wearing a hijab, that people here would think I agree with what happened. But this doesn’t represent me,” Rania told CNN. “I told my husband that I am fearful that people would attack Muslims here in Barcelona, in payback.

“The feeling of insecurity is terrible for all people.”

Resident Federico Colmenarejo, 32, walked along Las Ramblas in a daze. His apartment overlooks the street — and he said a phone call from his grandmother at the time of the attack had saved his life because it had stopped him going out.

“Just to think how is it possible that I cross this street every day on my way to work. I can’t believe it. In Barcelona this never happens,” he told CNN.

“Yesterday I was speaking with my friends here, during a street festival in Gracia, and we were thinking how easy it would be to make an attack.”

Victims from 24 countries

The Catalan government said the Barcelona victims came from Spain, France, Germany, Holland, Argentina, Venezuela, Belgium, Peru, Romania, Ireland, Cuba, Greece, Macedonia, UK, Austria, Pakistan, Taiwan, Canada, Ecuador, USA, Philippines, Kuwait, Turkey and China.

Belgium’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Jose de Pierpont said one Belgian was among those killed in the attack.

Two Italians are also among those killed, Italian authorities said Friday. Bruno Gulotta, who worked in sales and marketing for Tom’s Hardware Italia, was a much-loved colleague with a partner and two young children, the company said. He was on holiday in Barcelona with his family.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that 26 French nationals were injured, at least 11 seriously.

Thirteen German citizens were hurt, ”some seriously and still fighting for their lives,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer told reporters in Berlin.

Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop said four Australians were injured, one was missing and three needed consular support.

Two people from Taiwan were severely injured in the attack and are undergoing emergency treatment, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Friday. A Hong Kong citizen was “lightly” injured in the attack, Chinese state media Xinhua reported.

There was no information on the identities of those injured or killed in Cambrils.

Pocket of radicalization

The Barcelona attack was Spain’s deadliest terror outrage in 13 years — in 2004, a suspected Al Qaeda terrorist cell blew up Madrid commuter trains killing 191 people and injuring thousands.

It was the sixth time in 13 months a vehicle has been used by Islamist terrorist to cause mass casualties in a European country, including major incidents in France, Germany, Britain and Sweden. Spain had escaped the carnage until Thursday.

But Fernando Reinares, director of the Global Terrorism Programme at the Elcano Royal Institute, told CNN Barcelona had long been a “prime scenario” for jihadi activities.

“It is the major radicalization pocket in the country. Barcelona is a big port city, close to France (and) has a long history of jihadis. The first jihadi ever in this country was arrested in Barcelona in 1995,” Reinares said.

Since then, a quarter of all individuals arrested in Spain for jihadist terrorism have been residents of Barcelona, according to Reinares.