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London attack casualty, response: 5 things we know about the Westminster horror

Four people were killed and 40 injured after being run over and stabbed in an attack at the gates of British democracy attributed by police to “Islamist-related terrorism”. Here’s what we know so far.

world Updated: Mar 23, 2017 12:29 IST
Agencies
An injured woman is assisted after an attack on Westminster Bridge in London.
An injured woman is assisted after an attack on Westminster Bridge in London.(Reuters)

Four people were killed and 40 injured after being run over and stabbed in an attack at the gates of British democracy attributed by police to “Islamist-related terrorism”. The attack unfolded on Wednesday across Westminster Bridge in the shadow of Big Ben, a towering landmark that draws tourists by the millions and stands over Britain’s Houses of Parliament -- the very image of London. Here’s what we know so far.

Terror unleashed

A knife-wielding man went on the deadly rampage, plowing a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before stabbing a police officer to death inside the gates of Parliament. Four people and the assailant were killed in what Prime Minister Theresa May condemned as a “sick and depraved terrorist attack.”

The car crashed into railings on the north side of the bridge, less than 200 yards (meters) from the entrance to Parliament. As people scattered in panic, witnesses saw a man holding a knife run toward the building.

“The whole crowd just surged around the corner by the gates just opposite Big Ben,” said witness Rick Longley. “A guy came past my right shoulder with a big knife and just started plunging it into the policeman. I have never seen anything like that. I just can’t believe what I just saw.”

The attacker managed to get past a gate into Parliament’s fenced-in New Palace Yard, a cobbled courtyard in the shadow of the Big Ben clock tower.

Daily Mail journalist Quentin Letts said a man in black attacked the police officer before being shot two or three times as he tried to storm into the building.

“As this attacker was running towards the entrance two plain-clothed guys with guns shouted at him what sounded like a warning, he ignored it and they shot two or three times and he fell,” Letts told the BBC.

The attacker fell to the cobbles just yards from the entrance to 1,000-year-old Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the parliamentary complex, busy with visitors and school groups. Beyond that, a corridor leads to the building’s Central Lobby, flanked by House of Commons and House of Lords chambers.

Members of the emergency services work on Westminster Bridge. (AFP)

Quick response

Lawmakers, lords, staff and visitors were locked down after the man was shot by police within the perimeter of Parliament, just yards (meters) from entrances to the building itself and in the shadow of the iconic Big Ben clock tower. He died, as did three pedestrians on the bridge, and the police officer.

A doctor who treated the wounded from the bridge said some had “catastrophic” injuries. Three police officers, several French teenagers on a school trip, two Romanian tourists and five South Korean visitors were among the injured.

Parliament was locked down for several hours, and the adjoining Westminster subway station was shuttered.

Conservative lawmaker Tobias Ellwood, whose brother was killed in the Bali terror attack in 2002, performed first aid on the wounded police officer, who later died. About 10 yards away lay the assailant.

“I tried to stem the flow of blood and give mouth to mouth while waiting for the medics to arrive but I think he had lost too much blood,” Ellwood said. “He had multiple wounds, under the arm and in the back.”

The attack began early Wednesday afternoon as a driver in a gray SUV slammed into pedestrians on the bridge linking Parliament to the south bank of the River Thames.

The prime minister was among lawmakers near the Commons at the time of the attack, and was quickly ushered away by security officers and driven back to Downing Street.

To get that far, the attacker would have had to evade the armed officers who patrol the Parliament complex in pairs, as well as Parliament’s own security staff, who don’t carry guns.

The attack unfolded near some of the city’s most famous tourist sites, including the London Eye, a large Ferris wheel with pods that overlook the capital. It was halted after the attack, stranding visitors in the pods, with an aerial view of the attack scene.

Dr. Colleen Anderson of St. Thomas’ Hospital said some of the wounded had “catastrophic” injuries.

The French foreign ministry said that three students on a school trip from Saint-Joseph in the Brittany town of Concarneau were among the injured. Two Romanians were also among the injured, the country’s foreign ministry said.

A street sign indicates a road closure near Buckingham Palace, as roads leading towards Westminster and Parliament Square in central London remain closed. (AFP)

Terror attack

Police said they were treating the attack as terrorism. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Metropolitan Police counterterrorism chief Mark Rowley said police believed there was only one attacker, “but it would be foolish to be overconfident early on.” He said an unarmed policeman, three civilians and the attacker died. Forty others, including three police officers, were injured.

Islamic extremism was suspected in the attack, Rowley said, adding that authorities believe they know the assailant’s identity but would not reveal it while the investigation was ongoing.

The threat level for international terrorism in the UK was already listed at severe, meaning an attack was “highly likely.”

Wednesday was the anniversary of suicide bombings in the Brussels airport and subway that killed 32 people last year, and the latest events echoed recent vehicle attacks in Berlin and Nice, France.

London has often been the target of terrorist attacks, from IRA campaigns in the 1970s and 80s to more recent Islamist plots.

On July 7, 2005, four al Qaeda-inspired British bombers blew themselves up on three subway trains and a bus in London, killing 52 people.

British security forces say they have thwarted some 13 terror plots over the past four years, but in recent years the UK has largely been spared major international terror attacks such as the ones seen in Belgium and France.

Last year, a far-right supporter shot and killed British lawmaker Jo Cox, who had campaigned for the U.K. to remain in the European Union. Prior to that, an attacker claiming to be motivated by Syria stabbed three people at a London subway station.

The most gruesome recent attack occurred in 2013 when two Muslim converts of Nigerian descent attacked Lee Rigby, a British soldier who was walking down the street. The men ran Rigby down with their vehicle and then used a cleaver to hack him to death as bystanders watched in horror.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement at Downing street in London. (REUTERS)

United they stand

US President Donald Trump was among world leaders offering condolences, and in Paris, the lights of the Eiffel Tower were to be dimmed in solidarity with London. Trump spoke with May by telephone and applauded “the quick response of British police and first responders,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.

May described the attack as “sick and depraved”, saying the assailant chose the site as an assault on Britain’s democratic values.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany stood “firmly and resolutely alongside Britons in the struggle against all forms of terrorism” while President Frank-Walter Steinmeier added: “In these grave moments, we Germans feel very close to the British people.”

French President Francois Hollande sent a message of “solidarity” and “support to the British people” saying France could identify with their pain after the attack, in which three French high school students were also wounded.

“France, which has been hit so hard in recent times, knows what the British people are suffering today,” he said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “Our thoughts are with the victims of today’s attack in London and their families. Canadians remain united with the people of the UK”.

India reacts

India stood with the United Kingdom in the fight against terrorism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, adding he was deeply saddened by the “terror attack”.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said that there was no Indian casualty in the attack.