A woman cries after a vehicular attack on Las Ramblas in Barcelona on Aug. 17. (Pau Barrena/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
As terrorists struck across Europe over the past year, Spain was spared from large-scale tragedy. No one had attacked there since the 2004 bombings of the Madrid rail system that killed 192 people, but authorities had long braced for another hit.
It came on Thursday evening.
A driver swerved a van onto a pedestrian area in Barcelona’s historic Las Ramblas district, breaking the peace of a warm summer afternoon in a packed, touristy area of the city at the peak of vacation season. The assault killed 13 people at the time of writing — authorities say the death toll could rise further still — and injured over 100 more.
A senior Catalan police official, Josep Lluis Trapero, told reporters they had arrested two people in connection with the attack — a Moroccan national and a Spanish citizen from the North African enclave of Melilla — but that the driver was still believed to be at large. Several hours after the incident, the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
The 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 it hit. People were sprawled on the sidewalk, some not moving. Hats, handbags and other items were strewn nearby. Some people ran screaming from the scene.
“There was a really loud kind of crashing noise. I didn’t stop to look back,” said witness Ethan Spieby to the BBC. Hours after the attack, he said he was holed up in a church with about 80 tourists and locals.
Early Friday, police said they thwarted what they thought was an attempt at a second, connected attack, in the Catalan town of Cambrils, 60 miles southwest of Barcelona, by fatally shooting four suspects, and police were checking the bodies for what they believed were explosive belts. A fifth suspect later died of his injuries.
Catalan authorities said they would stand firm in the face of terrorism.
“Catalonia will always prevail in the face of terrorism,” said Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan regional government. “We will always stand for democracy and freedom. We will always be united.” — William Booth, Michael Birnbaum and William Branigin
Supporters of President Uhuru Kenyatta cheer in Nairobi after he was declared the winner of Kenya’s presidential election on Aug. 11. (Dai Kurokawa/European Pressphoto Agency)
The big question
Ahead of Kenya’s elections last week, Nairobi was transformed into a relative ghost town. The epic traffic jams vanished. Businesses closed. Those who could afford bus or plane tickets fled to more peaceful cities, or left Kenya entirely. Nairobians feared the result, whatever it was, could spark violence of the kind seen after the 2007 election, when hundreds were killed in post-election clashes. So far, there have been protests and a number of deaths — but a major upheaval hasn’t come to pass. So we asked Post Africa bureau chief Kevin Sieff: Does it look like Kenya has avoided widespread violence?
“It’s been nine days since the election. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta has won, and his longtime opponent Raila Odinga is contesting the results in court. More than 20 people were killed in post-election clashes with the police. But the most extreme fears of Kenyans never materialized.
“So has Kenya’s democracy matured enough that even a disputed election doesn’t result in countrywide ethnic violence?
“More likely, Kenya avoided a more dramatic descent for two reasons. First, Kenyatta’s control of the security forces is absolute, and police had prepared for months to quell post-election demonstrations. Second, Odinga’s supporters — and Kenya’s opposition more broadly — have grown accustomed to losing national elections.
“To much of the opposition, each loss has cast more doubt on the country’s democratic process — and underscored the futility of fighting against the existing political establishment, led by Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe. The avenues to power for Odinga’s tribe, the Luo, are increasingly difficult to identify.
“The lack of more deadly violence should not be read as a testament to Kenyan democracy. The tribal tensions that lie just beneath the surface of the country’s politics are as alive as ever. Odinga was unable or unwilling to mobilize a violent response to his loss, but roughly half of Kenyans still feel spurned by the central government over tribal loyalties.That will not only make it difficult for Kenyatta to improve public faith in his government; it also deepens a rift that runs through East Africa’s most important nation, a vibrant democracy that could hardly be less inclusive.”