BARCELONA - 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 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 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 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.
The injured and dead came from 24 different countries, the Catalan government said on Friday in a statement, ranging from France and Germany to Pakistan and the Philippines.
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 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.
"At first people were going crazy in there, lots of people crying, including a little girl around three years old."
It was the deadliest attack in Spain since March 2004, when Islamist militants 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."
The Spanish royal household said on Twitter: “They are murderers, nothing more than criminals who are not going to terrorize us. All of Spain is Barcelona.”
The incident occurred in the vicinity of the Maccabi kosher and Habibi halal restaurants. They are located across from the city's medieval Jewish quarter.
Limor Hasson, an Israeli tourist, told Channel 2 that there was a group of about 20 Israelis in the Maccabi restaurant at the time of the attack.
Chief Rabbi of Barcelona Meir Bar-Hen told Channel 2 that all community events will be cancelled and the he is headed to the scene of the incident to offer his services.
Bar-Hen said that it did not appear that Jews were targeted.
A Chabad representative told The Jerusalem Post
that the institute is located close to the scene of the attack and that members of Chabad staff were trying to reach the area to see if they were any Jewish casualties but that the police would not let them enter the area. "If there are Jews there we will try to find them and help them however we can," he said. "We are waiting for the incident to be over."
He confirmed that all Jewish institutes had closed until they received further notice.
Media reports said the van had zigzagged at speed down the famous Las Ramblas avenue, a magnet for tourists.
"I heard screams and a bit of a crash and then I just saw the crowd parting and this van going full pelt down the middle of the Ramblas and I immediately knew that it was a terrorist attack or something like that," eyewitness Tom Gueller told the BBC.
"It wasn't slowing down at all. It was just going straight through the middle of the crowds in the middle of the Ramblas."
Mobile phone footage posted on Twitter showed several bodies strewn along the Ramblas, some motionless. Paramedics and bystanders bent over them, treating them and trying to comfort those still conscious.
Around them, the boulevard was deserted, covered in rubbish and abandoned objects including hats, bags and a pram.Content Warning: The following video contains graphic images.
Following the van crash, emergency services said people should not go to the area around Barcelona's Placa Catalunya, one of the city's main squares at the top of the famous Las Ramblas avenue, and requested the closure of nearby train and metro stations.El Pais
newspaper said the driver of the vehicle had fled on foot after mowing down dozens of people.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he was in contact with authorities, and the priority was to attend to the injured.
Three Israeli diplomas were dispatched from the embassy in Madrid to Barcelona Thursday evening to provide assistance to Israelis who may need it.
Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely quickly condemned Thursday afternoon's attack in Barcelona. In a twitter post she wrote, "I condemn this deplorable act of terror and senseless death and stand with Spain with prayers for the fast recovery of the victims."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also the country's foreign minister, went to the Foreign Ministry's situation room Thursday evening where ministry officials were monitoring the situation and fielding calls from concerned relatives who have not yet heard from their family members in Barcelona.
Netanyahu “strongly condemned” the attack, saying that “tonight we saw again that terrorism strikes everywhere, and the civilized world must fight it together to defeat it.”
Thousands of Israelis are believed to be in the city at the height of the tourism season. Initial reports did not indicate that any Israelis were injured in the attack.
Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett said, "A few minutes ago I spoke with the head of the Spanish Jewish community about the horrific terror attack that took in Barcelona this evening. I conveyed to him my condolences and prayers for the wounded, and made it clear the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs would aid the community in any way possible.
"At times like this it is important to understand Islamic terror is attacking the values of freedom and democracy, in Barcelona, London, Paris and Jerusalem. The West must stand strong in the face of terror and defeat it wherever needed."
Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon expressed solidarity with the Spanish UN ambassador saying, “We send our condolences and wish a speedy recovery to those injured in this horrific attack in Barcelona. Terror is terror, and Israel stands by the side of the people of Spain as we pledge to fight all those who seek to harm the free world.”
Gilad Erdan, minister of public security, also tweeted his condolences to the people affected by the attack.
The European Jewish Congress strongly condemned the terror attack in Barcelona.
“We are yet again witness to another terrorist attack in Europe perpetrated against innocent civilians,” Dr. Moshe Kantor, President of the Congress, said. “They are choosing to strike again at our zest for life and our basic freedoms with their cult of death. It is becoming increasingly difficult to prevent this abuse of regular vehicles as their chosen instrument of murder.”
“We stand with the Spanish people and urge the authorities to bring to justice those who perpetrated this savage attack, including those who inspired it and those whose incitement encouraged it.”
Speaking on behalf of the Jewish communities of Europe, the organization said it extends it deepest condolences to the families of the victims and wish a speedy and full recovery to those injured.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews also released a statement, with Senior Vice President Richard Verber saying: “We utterly condemn this brutal attack by terrorists intent on murdering and maiming innocent pedestrians in Barcelona. People of all faiths and none must come together to defeat this evil.”
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.
While full details of the van incident were not immediately clear, vehicles have been used to ram into crowds in a series of militant attacks across Europe since July 2016, killing well over 100 people in Nice, Berlin, London and Stockholm.
Witness Ethan Spibey told Britain's Sky News: "All of sudden it was real chaos. People just started running screaming, there were loud bangs. People just started running into shops, there was a kind of mini-stampede where we were, down one of the alleyways."
He said he had taken refuge with dozens of other people in a nearby church.
"They've locked the doors because I'm not sure whether the person who may have done it has actually been caught, so they've locked the doors and told people just to wait in here."
In recent weeks, threatening graffiti against tourists has appeared in Barcelona. In one video released under the slogan "tourism kills neighborhoods," several hooded individuals stopped a tourist bus in Barcelona, slashed the tires and spray-painted the windscreen.
The deadliest recent attack in Spain was in March 2004, when Islamist militants placed bombs on commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and wounding more than 1,800.
This is a developing story.
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