Spain hunts suspect over Barcelona carnage
Spanish police on Saturday hunted for a Moroccan man suspected to have carried out one of two terror attacks that killed 14 people, injured 120 more and and plunged the country into shock and grief.
Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said the cell behind the carnage in the holiday cities of Barcelona and Cambrils had been “dismantled,” although local authorities took a more cautious tone.
Police said they had cast a dragnet for 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub. Media reports said he was the driver of a van that smashed into people on Barcelona’s busy Las Ramblas boulevard on Thursday.
Just hours later, a similar attack struck in the seaside town of Cambrils early Friday. Police killed the five attackers in Cambrils, some of whom were wearing fake explosive belts.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the operation, as well as for a knife attack that wounded seven in Russia on Saturday.
In Finland, meanwhile, police said a stabbing spree by a Moroccan asylum-seeker on Friday that left two dead was being treated as a terrorist incident.
– ‘I hope he’s innocent’ –
The IS’s claim in Spain is believed to be their first in the country, but the method of using vehicles as weapons follows other assaults commandeered or inspired by the group, including in Berlin, London and Paris.
The terror cell in Spain reportedly comprised at least 12 young men, some of them teenagers.
Investigators have been honing in on the small town of Ripoll, at the foot of the Pyrenees, where many of the suspects — including Abouyaaqoub — lived.
On Saturday, police raided the apartment of an imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, according to his flatmate who gave his name only as Nourddem.
Spanish daily El Pais, quoting police sources, said the imam may have been one of those killed in an explosion in a home in Alcanar, some 200 kilometres (120 miles) south of Barcelona, where the alleged jihadists were believed to have been building bombs.
“The last time I saw him was Tuesday and he told me that he was going to see his wife in Morocco,” Nourddem told AFP.
A waiter at a Ripoll cafe told AFP he had served beers to some of the suspects numerous times, most recently just two days ago.
“They came to have beer at another bar in the square where I used to work” said the waiter on condition of anonymity.
Most of the suspects are children of Moroccan immigrants, including Ripoll-born Moussa Oukabir, 17, one of five suspects shot dead in the Cambrils attack. His older brother, Driss, counts among the four arrested.
Back in Morocco, Moussa and Driss’ father Said broke down, surrounded by relatives.
“We’re under shock, completely devastated,” he told AFP, saying Moussa had been studying “normally” at school while Driss worked “honestly”.
“I hope they will say he’s innocent… I don’t want to lose my two sons.”
– Bigger plans –
Police said they believed the suspects were planning a much larger attack.
“They were preparing one or several attacks in Barcelona, and an explosion in Alcanar stopped this as they no longer had the material they needed to commit attacks of an even bigger scope,” said Josep Lluis Trapero of Catalonia’s police.
Security forces were seen removing dozens of gas canisters from the house in Alcanar on Friday.
And as the hunt for Abouyaaqoub gathered pace, Spanish police tipped off their French counterparts about a white van linked to the attacks that may have crossed the border, a French police source told AFP.
– Security increased –
Reflecting Barcelona’s status as Spain’s most popular tourist destination, victims of the attack came from three dozen countries including Algeria, Australia, China, France, Ireland, Peru and Venezuela.
Fifty-four people are still in hospital, including 12 in critical condition, Catalan emergency services said.
With the peak summer tourism season still in full swing, the Spanish government ordered security ramped up in crowded places although it kept the terror threat level at four out of a maximum five, Zoido said.
Spain’s tourism sector has been vital to its economic recovery, and, because it has until now been spared the recent wave of extremist attacks, it has recorded a surge as visitors shunned other restive sunshine destinations such as Tunisia and Egypt.
Nevertheless, the country is no stranger to jihadist attacks.
In March 2004, it was hit by what remains Europe’s deadliest attack, when bombs on commuter trains in Madrid killed 191 people in an assault claimed by Al Qaeda-inspired extremists.
Spain has also had to deal with a decades-long campaign of violence waged by Basque separatist group ETA, which only declared a ceasefire in 2011.