A man was hacked to death in a street near an army barracks in London on Wednesday in what Prime Minister David Cameron said appeared to be a politically motivated attack.
The victim was a British soldier killed in broad daylight by unidentified assailants who tried to behead him while shouting "God is greatest" in Arabic, media reports said. Soon after the attack, two men carrying weapons were shot and wounded by police.
Cameron cut short a visit to France to return to London and chair an emergency national security meeting. "It is the most appalling crime," Cameron said in Paris. "The police are urgently seeking the full facts about this case but there are strong indications that it is a terrorist incident."
Police sealed off streets around the Woolwich area in southeast London and helicopters hovered overhead after the attack. Pools of blood stained the street.
Video footage filmed by an onlooker and broadcast by Britain's ITV news channel showed a man with hands covered in blood and holding a bloodied knife. In the clip, the man, looking agitated and angry, said: "I apologise that women had to witness that, but in our lands our women have to see the same thing.
"You people will never be safe. Remove your government. They don't care about you." The man could have been refering to Afghanistan, where British troops are part of the international force supporting the Kabul government in its fight against Taleban insurgents.
London was last hit by a serious militant attack in July 2005, when four young Islamists set off suicide bombs on the public transport network, killing 52 people and wounding hundreds. A similar attempted attack two weeks later was thwarted.
British counter-terrorism chiefs have recently warned that radicalised individuals, so-called "lone wolves" who might have had no direct contact with al Qaeda posed as great a risk as those who plotted attacks on the lines of the 2005 attacks. Local residents expressed shock at Wednesday's killing.
"That this can happen in the centre of a busy town, it's really really shocking and traumatising for everybody, all local residents," a witness who gave her name as Tenisan told Reuters in a nearby street.
Ahmed Jama, a 26-year-old resident, laid flowers down at the scene as a sign of respect to the families involved. "This has nothing to do with Islam, this has nothing to do with our religion. This has nothing to do with Allah," he said "It has nothing to do with Islam. It's heartbreaking, it's heartbreaking."
A number of weapons were reportedly being used in the attack, including a firearm, police said. Security has been tightened at all London barracks. Home Secretary Theresa May said in a statement: "This is a sickening and barbaric attack." Cameron cut short talks with French President Francois Hollande to return home. "We have had these sorts of attacks before in our country and we never buckle in the face of them," he said.