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Mental health, terror angle being probed as London knife attacker kills 1

world Updated: Aug 04, 2016 14:45 IST
London knife attack

The crime scene in London's Russell Square is cleaned on August 4, 2016, following a knife attack in which one woman was killed and five others injured. Police said they are investigating for possible terrorist links. (AFP Photo)

A woman was killed and five others injured by a knife-wielding man with suspected mental health issues who went on a rampage in central London — an attack, police said, could be linked to terrorism.

Armed police were called at 10:33pm after a man with a knife started to attack people at Russell Square, an elegant park near the site of a 2005 suicide bombing.

“Early indications suggest that mental health is a significant factor in this case and that is one major line of inquiry,” London Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, Mark Rowley told reporters.

“But of course at this stage we should keep an open mind regarding motive, and consequently, terrorism as a motivation remains but one line of inquiry for us to explore,” said Rowley, who is Britain’s most senior anti-terrorism officer.

Police, who arrived within five minutes of being called, used a Taser electric shock gun to detain the young man. He was later arrested on suspicion of murder. The area, which is near the British Museum and University of London, was secured thereafter.

The investigation is being handled by the homicide command with support from the counter-terrorism officers, Rowley said.

The deceased woman was initially treated at the scene, but was pronounced dead a short time later. The other injured people — one woman and four men — were treated in hospital and three were later discharged.

A private ambulance crew removes a body from Russell Square in London, after a woman was killed in a knife attack in central London. (AFP Photo)

A forensic tent had been erected on the pavement, the scene of the attack.

Britain says its terrorist attack threat level remains at “severe”, the second-highest level, meaning a strike is “highly likely”. Police had already promised to deploy more armed officers in the capital after a spate of deadly attacks in France, Germany and Belgium.

Attacks across Europe have heightened tensions between some communities, raised questions about the European Union’s border policies and bolstered support for anti-EU far-right groups.

Police chiefs and security bosses have repeatedly warned that Islamic State fighters want to carry out attacks against Britain, a close ally of the United States

UK to remain vigilant

London’s Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of a major Western capital, called for vigilance.

“The safety of all Londoners is my number one priority and my heart goes out to the victims of the incident in Russell Square and their loved ones,” he said.

“I urge all Londoners to remain calm and vigilant. Please report anything suspicious to the police? We all have a vital role to play as eyes and ears for our police and security services and in helping to ensure London is protected.”

Map shows Russell Square in London where a 19-year-old young man attacked people with a knife on Wednesday night. (AFP )

Just hours before the Russell Square attack, London’s police chief said that he would deploy an additional 600 armed officers across the capital to protect against any attacks, an initiative that’s been dubbed Operation Hercules.

Flanked by heavily armed officers in full body armour, police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said on Wednesday that it would be foolish to ignore the recent spate of attacks in France, Germany and Belgium.

London counter-terrorism police chiefs have previously warned that Islamic State was seeking to radicalise vulnerable people with mental health issues to carry out attacks. In some operations, police commanders have taken advice from specialist psychologists.

Trail of violence

London was hit by coordinated suicide bombings on July 7, 2005, when four Islamist extremists targeted three underground trains and one bus, killing 52 people.

One of the bombs was detonated on an underground train travelling between Kings Cross and Russell Square while another bomb was detonated on a bus in Tavistock Square, a short distance from Russell Square.

Police cordoned off the area where a knife attack happened late on the night of August 4, 2016. In 2005, a bomb was detonated on a bus in Tavistock Square, a short distance from Russell Square. (AP Photo)

Since then, dozens of plots have been foiled and there have been smaller-scale attacks, such as the killing of an off-duty soldier on a street in south London by two extremists in May 2013.

A man who attacked passengers at a London underground train station in December was jailed for life earlier this month. The judge said the attacker was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia at the time of the offence but that he may have been motivated by events in Syria.

“Londoners will wake up and in the morning they will notice an increased police presence on the streets, including armed officers,” Assistant Commissioner Rowley said.

“This is there to provide reassurance and safety. We ask the public to remain calm, vigilant and alert,” he said.