A van plowed into crowds of pedestrians on Barcelona’s historic Las Ramblas street on Thursday, killing at least 13 people and leaving scores of bloodied survivors sprawled on the sidewalk in what authorities said was a terrorist attack.
The extremist group Islamic State claimed its “soldiers” carried out the bloodshed, the latest in a string of vehicular assaults to hit European cities in recent years. It was the deadliest attack in Spain since 2004, when Islamist-inspired bombers killed 191 people in a coordinated strike on four packed commuter trains in Madrid.
Two suspects were apprehended, but they did not include the driver, police said. As a massive manhunt was underway, a car ran over two police officers on the outskirts of the city, injuring them, authorities said.
Later, police tweeted that officers were responding to another possible terrorist attack in Cambrils, a coastal community south of Barcelona, and had fatally shot five suspects. Six civilians were injured, police said.
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Barcelona was the victim of “jihadi terrorism” and told reporters that the country was “united not just in mourning, but especially in the firm determination to beat those who want to rob us of our values and our way of life.”
The initial attack happened late on a warm, sunny afternoon, when the broad thoroughfare was crowded with people enjoying the many shops, restaurants and bars. Witnesses described the pandemonium that ensued as a white van mounted the curb onto a pedestrian way running down the center of Las Ramblas, a street popular with tourists in the heart of the northeastern Spanish city.
The van veered right and left into the crowds, sending panicked people running in all directions and leaving carnage in its wake.
Alberto Caceres was working the front desk at Meirtetro S.L., one of the establishments overlooking Las Ramblas, when he saw the van speeding by just after 5 p.m. “There were a lot of people, a lot of tourists,” he said by phone. “It hit everything in sight.”
Valerie Istre, who was visiting Barcelona from Dallas, was walking down the street with a friend, who dropped her sunglasses and broke them. Minutes before the attack, the women ducked into a store to buy new ones.
“We would have been on the street at that exact place had we not walked into the store,” Istre said. “We saw people running towards the store and screaming. I saw a lady holding her baby to her chest, screaming.”
Istre, a 46-year-old mother of three, said she and others were locked inside the store for three hours. After police let them out, she and her friend found a nearby restaurant.
“We cried,” she said. “We saw just how close we were to where it happened and we could have been right there.”
Video shared on social media showed the casualties splayed on a tree-lined sidewalk amid pools of blood and shattered kiosks as emergency crews and passersby tried frantically to help them. Sirens blared and screaming could be heard.
Daniel Bahrami, 32, was in his fourth-floor apartment when he heard the sirens and helicopters flying overhead. He ran downstairs to see what was happening and noticed that police had blocked off several roads.
“Then we heard shots, and we saw a bunch of people come running towards us,” Bahrami said. “We panicked and followed the crowd.”
As he ran, Bahrami collected two American tourists and three local teenagers who he said were in tears and brought them home with him. The two Americans were spending the night at his apartment and the three teenage girls were eventually able to catch a taxi home.
Police cordoned off the area and ordered nearby Metro and train stations to close. Armed officers could be seen searching side streets and evacuating shops and restaurants.
Joaquim Forn, the interior minister for Spain’s Catalonia region, confirmed the 13 deaths and said more than 100 people were injured. But at least 15 of the wounded were in serious condition, and officials said the death toll could rise.
“It was clearly a terror attack intended to kill as many people as possible,” Josep Lluis Trapero, a senior police official, told reporters late Thursday.
The attack took place at the height of the tourist season in Barcelona, and citizens from Australia, Belgium, Greece and the Netherlands were reported to be among the victims.
About 7:30 p.m., a vehicle described as a Ford Focus struck two officers at a highway checkpoint near Barcelona, the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported. Few details were released about the incident, but police said they had located the driver in the town of Sant Just Desvern, five miles from Barcelona.
Hours later, Spanish media reported that another attack was underway in Cambrils involving assailants armed with what appeared to be explosives vests who were traveling in a van.
Police did not immediately release details about the incident, but tweeted, “We have gunned down the perpetrators,” and said four of the five were dead. The fifth suspect died later of his wounds, police said.
The two detained suspects were a Moroccan and a Spanish national from Melilla, an autonomous Spanish city on Africa’s north coast that borders Morocco, Trapero said. They were apprehended in the northern Catalan town of Ripoll and in Alcanar, a town south of Barcelona where an explosion had occurred the night before, killing one person and injuring several others.
The van driver in the attack on Las Ramblas escaped on foot near Barcelona’s opera house, Trapero said.
Citing unidentified police sources, El Pais reported that one of those apprehended had arrived in Barcelona from Morocco on Sunday and had rented the van used in the attack in Santa Perpetua de Mogoda, north of Barcelona. The suspect has a history of run-ins with police and was released from prison in 2012, the paper said.
Amaq, a news agency affiliated with Islamic State, released a statement saying the van attack had been carried out by its “soldiers” in response to the “coalition countries,” presumably those nations, including Spain, that are battling the militant group in Iraq and Syria. Supporters of Islamic State celebrated the attack on social media.
Since the 2004 attack in Madrid, Spain has faced a number of bombings claimed by the Basque separatist group ETA, which declared a cease-fire in 2011. Until Thursday, however, the country had escaped the latest wave of Islamist-inspired terrorist violence in Europe.
Islamic State, which has been losing territory in Iraq and Syria, has repeatedly called on its supporters around the world to wage attacks in which they use vehicles and any other weapons at hand.
In the French resort city of Nice, a man drove a truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day on July 14, 2016, killing 86 people. Five months later, another driver used a van to mow down shoppers at a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people.
Eight people were killed when three attackers drove into pedestrians in the London Bridge area and started stabbing people in June.
It was the second such attack in the British capital this year. In March, a driver plowed into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before exiting the vehicle and stabbing a policeman to death in an attack that claimed five lives.
And in April, four people were killed when an assailant drove a truck into a crowd on a shopping street in Stockholm, Sweden.
There also have been vehicular attacks not attributed to Islamist terrorism, including one outside a mosque in London and Saturday’s car attack in Charlottesville, Va.
Messages of sympathy and support for Barcelona poured in from across Europe, where cities have been on alert for more attacks.
In Washington, President Trump tweeted, “The United States condemns the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain, and will do whatever is necessary to help. Be tough & strong, we love you!”
He followed that with a statement about U.S. Gen. John Pershing that historians describe as urban legend. “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!” he tweeted.
The full claim, which Trump repeated several times during the 2016 presidential campaign, is that in the aftermath of the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, Pershing had his men dip 50 bullets in pig blood and use them to kill 49 Muslim prisoners. The survivor was told to relay the experience to others.
There is no evidence that Pershing ever used such a technique.