LONDON — A driver swerved a van onto a pedestrian area Thursday in Barcelona’s historic Las Ramblas district, ramming into crowds and leaving more than a dozen people dead and scores of others injured along a bloodied stretch of tree-shaded sidewalk. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the violence, and authorities described the incident as a terrorist attack.
The attack broke the peace of a warm summer afternoon in a packed, touristy area of Barcelona at the peak of vacation season, and the victims came from well beyond the city borders. Authorities announcing the casualties said that the death toll could rise and that 15 people had suffered serious injuries. More than 100 people were injured, according to Joaquim Forn, the interior minister of the Catalan regional government.
A senior Catalan police official, Josep Lluis Trapero, told reporters they had arrested two people in connection with the attack, but that the driver was still believed to be at large. The two men who were detained were a Moroccan national and a Spanish citizen from the enclave of Melilla, he said.
Spain had been spared large-scale terrorist tragedy since the 2004 attack on the Madrid rail system that killed 192 people and injured about 2,000, but authorities had long braced for another hit. The attack brought to Spain the same sort of vehicular carnage that has visited France, Germany, Britain and Sweden since 2016, highlighting the difficulty of defending dense city centers from violence that requires no explosives or training.
“Terrorists will never defeat a united people who love freedom in the face of barbarism,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy wrote on Twitter as he rushed to Barcelona.
The Islamic State’s AMAQ news agency asserted that “the people who executed the Barcelona attack are soldiers from the Islamic State and they did this operation as a response to calls to target coalition states.” Spain is a member of a broad U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State.
It was not immediately clear how closely the Islamic State had worked with the attackers. The group has previously claimed responsibility for attacks inspired by their rhetoric but not directly planned by Islamic State leaders.
Police later said they were looking into a potential link between the van attack and a pair of explosions that destroyed a house in Alcanar, about 100 miles southeast of Barcelona, earlier in the day. One person was killed there and 16 were injured, including police and firefighters who were investigating the initial blast. The incident was initially reported to be a gas explosion. The house apparently contained a number of propane canisters.
The connection was not fully explained, but it raised the question whether the attackers were attempting to use natural gas tanks in the attack, which could have inflicted even more casualties.
The Thursday attack, which took place over a few terror-filled minutes just before 6:00 p.m. local time, set off a wave of panic and confusion as authorities sought to track down the perpetrator and fearful civilians hid for hours in barricaded shops, restaurants and churches.
Witnesses described chaos as the white delivery van suddenly swung off a street onto the wide pedestrian mall that draws strolling tourists and residents to its bars, cafes and shops. As people started to run away, the driver swerved the vehicle from left to right, in an apparent bid to inflict maximum damage.
When the van came to a halt, its front was smashed and crumpled inward from the impact of the people hit in its deadly path. People were sprawled on the sidewalk, some not moving. Hats, handbags and other items were strewn nearby. Some people ran screaming from the scene.
“All of sudden, everyone started running, so we ran, too,” said Andrew Roby, 35, a tourist visiting from Washington.
Roby said he saw several people, apparently wounded, lying in front of and beside the van.
“We saw people on the ground,” he said. “I heard a bunch of people screaming.”
Some locals expressed frustration at authorities’ failure to place barriers at the entrances to the boulevard in a new era of vehicular terrorism. Las Ramblas is one of the city’s top tourist zones, with a wide pedestrian promenade flanked by roadways on either side.
The white van was “going entirely too fast. It looked to me as if he was going left to right, hitting people with the little stand,” Tom Markwell, another American tourist, told the BBC. “All of a sudden, people were just screaming and running.”
Another witness said that police suddenly shouted at the crowds to run.
“There was a really loud kind of crashing noise. I didn’t stop to look back,” Ethan Spieby, a witness caught up in the commotion, told the BBC.
Hours after the attack, he said he was holed up in a church with about 80 tourists and locals.
“They have locked the doors, and I think the police are outside. We’re just waiting in here right now to hear more news. It’s quite scary to be caught up in it,” he said.
More than four hours after the attack, police finally started evacuating those who had sheltered inside nearby buildings.
Citizens of Belgium, Australia, the Netherlands and Germany were among the dead and injured, according to officials from those countries, a measure of the international draw of the cosmopolitan Las Ramblas area, which has long stood at the heart of Barcelona.
Underlining the confusion after the attack, police found the identification card of one local resident in the cab of the van and spent hours searching for him. After his name was widely circulated in local media, he turned himself into police and said that he had lost his identification card, the security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss an open investigation.
And adding to the sense of uneasiness, the Catalan Interior Ministry said late Thursday that a car broke through a police checkpoint outside Barcelona and injured two police officers. It was not immediately clear whether the incident, which took place near the town of Sant Just Desvern, just west of Barcelona, was connected to the attack.
Spanish police did not immediately give details on the driver or other aspects of the incident.
After the attack, Spanish authorities shared the names of at least two people with European and Arab intelligence agencies, but the suspects did not appear to have previously been flagged for connections to extremism, according to an Arab and a European intelligence official, neither of whom was authorized to speak on the record.
Authorities appear to believe that a small group of two or three people planned the attack, the Arab intelligence official said.
Catalan authorities said they would stand firm in the face of terrorism.
“There have been people arrested, and this investigation is still ongoing,” Carles Puigdemont, president of the Catalan regional government, told reporters in Barcelona. “Catalonia will always prevail in the face of terrorism. We will always stand for democracy and freedom. We will always be united.”
Islamic State supporters celebrated the Barcelona attack on Thursday and promoted previous threats made against Spain, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has called on supporters to carry out attacks using vehicles. The group has claimed responsibility for car attacks carried out in Europe, as well as on the campus of Ohio State University last year.
The attack drew offers of assistance from around the world, including the United States.
“The United States condemns the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain, and will do whatever is necessary to help. Be tough & strong, we love you!” President Trump wrote on Twitter.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said U.S. authorities would offer any help they could.
The Catalonia region of Spain has faced repeated terrorist attacks over decades from the ETA Basque separatist group. Catalonia is planning an independence vote Oct. 1 over the objections of the national government in Madrid, which says it is unconstitutional.
In July 2016, a truck was driven into Bastille Day crowds along a seaside corniche in the southern French city of Nice, killing 86 people. In December 2016, 12 people were killed when a driver used a hijacked truck to drive into a Christmas market in Berlin.
In March, a man in a rented SUV plowed into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge, killing four people before he ran onto the grounds of Parliament and fatally stabbed a police officer. A month later in Stockholm, a rejected asylum seeker from Uzbekistan crashed a truck into a central department store in an attack that left five people dead.
Birnbaum reported from Brussels and Branigin from Washington. Karla Adam in London, Souad Mekhennet in Edinburgh and Brian Murphy, Mark Berman and David Nakamura in Washington contributed to this report.
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