Spain mounts manhunt for driver as it mourns victims

Police say suspects were planning a bigger assault but lost explosives needed in blast

People paying their respects to the victims of the van attack at a makeshift memorial set up on the Las Ramblas promenade in Barcelona yesterday. The attack killed at least 13 people and injured more than 100 others.
People paying their respects to the victims of the van attack at a makeshift memorial set up on the Las Ramblas promenade in Barcelona yesterday. The attack killed at least 13 people and injured more than 100 others. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BARCELONA • As Spain began three days of mourning yesterday, police are continuing a manhunt for the driver of a van that mowed down scores of people on the Las Ramblas promenade in Barcelona on Thursday.

The police also revealed that suspects behind the vehicular attacks in Barcelona and a nearby seaside town had been preparing for a bigger assault that could have involved explosives.

"They were preparing one or several attacks in Barcelona, but an explosion in Alcanar stopped this as they no longer had the material they needed to commit attacks of an even bigger scope," Major Josep Lluis Trapero of Catalonia's police said. He was referring to a blast in a building filled with propane canisters in the town of Alcanar on Wednesday, which killed one person and was caused by an attempt to make explosive devices.

Major Trapero said there was a possibility but "no concrete proof" that the Barcelona driver was among five suspects shot dead hours later, following a similar car attack in the seaside town of Cambrils, 120km south of Barcelona.

Investigators believed a cell of at least eight people, possibly 12, may have been involved in the attacks.

Three people arrested so far are Moroccans. A fourth suspect detained in Alcanar yesterday is a Spaniard. Aged from 21 to 34, they had no history of terror-related activities. Police are also looking for Moussa Oukabir, aged around 17, whose older brother Drissa was among the three already arrested.

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The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria claimed responsibility for the Barcelona assault.

The twin attacks left at least 14 people dead, including a woman in Cambrils, and 130 others injured. The victims are of at least 34 nationalities, including people from France, Australia and China.

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In a poignant moment yesterday, a crowd led by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, King Felipe VI and the president of Catalonia, where Barcelona and Cambrils are located, observed a minute of silence in a square in Barcelona that was followed by applause and shouts of "not afraid".

World leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump, condemned the violence, expressing outrage and solidarity with the victims. Singapore also condemned the attacks, with President Tony Tan Keng Yam writing to King Felipe VI to express condolences and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressing his sadness to his Spanish counterpart.

Las Ramblas, the site of the Barcelona attack, was thronged with people again yesterday morning, but the mood was subdued, and people were talking quietly.

Most of the shops were open, but they did not seem to have many customers. Where the van had stopped and many people were killed or injured is a mosaic in the pavement by the late Joan Miró, the city's most famous modern artist.

A shop worker recounted what he saw on Wednesday.

"When it happened, I ran out and saw the damage," said Mr Xavi Perez. "There were bodies on the ground, with people crowding round them. People were crying. There were lots of foreigners."

The last major terrorist attack on Spanish soil was the 2004 bombing of the Madrid rail system that killed 192 people and injured about 2,000.

The nationality of the Moroccan suspects is certain to raise alarm within European counter-terrorism circles. Moroccan networks were also connected to major terrorist attacks in France and Belgium in recent years. Spain has a significant Moroccan population.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2017, with the headline Spain mounts manhunt for driver as it mourns victims. Subscribe