Van plows through crowd in Barcelona, killing at least 13; two arrested, explosion kills another in related incident

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BARCELONA — A manhunt is underway for the driver of a van that mowed through crowds of tourists on Barcelona’s most famous avenue on Thursday, killing at least 13 people in an attack that was claimed by Islamic State.

Authorities said the death toll could rise, with more than 100 people injured, some seriously.

Police said they arrested two men, a Moroccan and a man from Spain’s north African enclave of Melilla, though neither was the driver. Witnesses said the driver fled on foot.

Also on Thursday, hours beforehand, a person was killed in an explosion in a house about 100 km (62 miles) southwest of Barcelona, in an incident linked to the attack, police added.

It was still not clear how many attackers had been involved. In another incident, police shot dead a man who had driven a car into a police checkpoint in Barcelona, though they had no evidence that this, too, was connected with the van attack.

Witnesses said the white van zigzagged at high speed down Las Ramblas, a busy avenue thronged with tourists, knocking down pedestrians and leaving bodies strewn across the ground.

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.

The 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 said on Twitter he was en route to Barcelona. “Maximum coordination to arrest the attackers, reinforce security and attend to all those affected,” he said.

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. Las Ramblas will go back to being everyone’s.”

U.S. President Donald Trump said: “The United States condemns the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain, and will do whatever is necessary to help.”

He added: “Be tough & strong, we love you!”

BODIES ON THE GROUND

Catalan police said the two men detained on Thursday had been arrested in two towns, Ripoll and Alcanar, both in the region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital.

The explosion was also in the town of Alcanar, in the early hours of Thursday. One person died and another was injured in that incident, police said.

Mobile phone footage 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, flip-flops, bags and a pram.

Belgium’s foreign minister said a Belgian was among the dead.

Regional head Carles Puigdemont said people had been flocking to hospitals in Barcelona to give blood.

Holidaymaker Ellen Vercamm told El Pais newspaper: “We saw a white van collide with people. We saw people going flying.”

A witness named Rebecca told La Vanguardia: “I’ve seen a lot of people knocked down on the floor and the people are running and crying. The van drove down the middle of the street dragging everyone with it.”

TOURIST DRAW

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.

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose nation has suffered some of Europe’s deadliest militant attacks in recent years, tweeted: “All my thoughts and France’s solidarity to the victims of the tragic attack in Barcelona.”

A Vatican spokesman said Pope Francis was praying for the victims and wanted to express his closeness to all Spanish people, especially the victims and their families.

Authorities in Vic, a small town outside Barcelona, said a van had been found there in connection with the attack. Spanish media had earlier reported that a second van had been hired as a getaway vehicle.

Barcelona is the capital of the wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia, which plans to hold a popular vote on Oct. 1 on whether it should secede from Spain. It is in dispute with the central government, which says the vote cannot go ahead because it is unconstitutional.

Following the attack, security staff at Barcelona airport suspended a strike that started in early August. “Our work is now more necessary than ever,” a spokesman said.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Sarah White, Julien Toyer and Madrid newsroom; Alissa de Carbonnel in Belgium; Ali Abdelaty and Ahmed Aboulenein in Cairo; Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Alison Williams, Nick Tattersall and Lisa Shumaker)

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