The perpetrators of the terror attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils originally planned to use explosive devices to wreak greater devastation but were apparently thwarted because their materials detonated prematurely, police said Friday.
A house in Alcanar, south of Barcelona, was destroyed in a blast Wednesday night — hours before one attacker mowed down dozens of people in the heart of Barcelona, killing 13, and a group of five drove into pedestrians in the town of Cambrils, killing one.
Catalan police chief Jose Lluis Trapero told reporters that explosives were present in the Alcanar property and that police “are working on the hypothesis that these attacks were being prepared in that house.”
The explosion meant the attackers were unable to use material they were planning to deploy in attacks in Barcelona, Cambrils and perhaps elsewhere, he said. This meant the attack in Barcelona “was more rudimentary than they originally planned,” Trapero said.
The police revelations pointed to an alarming conclusion: that a highly organized terror cell had gone undetected until their explosives accidentally blew up the house where they were based — and despite the setback they still managed to carry out two further improvised attacks without impediment.
People from at least 34 countries are among the injured in the attacks, according to the Catalonia government. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said an American citizen was among the dead. The first to be identified was an Italian, Bruno Gulotta.
Trapero said police were investigating whether any of the five suspects shot in Cambrils was the fugitive driver from the Barcelona attack but that this was not yet clear.
Four people have been arrested, one of them in Alcanar and three in Ripoll. It was unclear how many people were involved in the attacks and how many suspects were still on the run.
Police said three of those arrested were Moroccan and another was a Spanish citizen from Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla. The suspects ranged in age from 21 to 34. None was on the police radar for terrorism.
A huge anti-terror operation was underway in Spain Friday as police seek to track down those responsible. France is “reinforcing border controls” with Spain as police search for the Barcelona attack driver, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said.
Speaking after a crisis meeting, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont paid tribute to the work of emergency services and the solidarity shown by Catalan residents in the wake of the shocking attack.
Sombre crowds gathered Friday morning for a moment’s silence led by King Felipe, the Spanish head of state, at Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya — near where the attack began. After the silence, those present joined together in lengthy applause. “We are not afraid, we won’t forget,” they chanted.
Shootout in Cambrils
In the early hours of Friday morning, police intercepted a group of five attackers in Cambrils, 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Barcelona.
According to a spokeswoman for Catalonia’s president, police engaged in a shootout with the five attackers after they drove an Audi A3 into several pedestrians. All five were shot dead by police, four of them by one officer, police said.
A woman subsequently died from her injuries, Catalan emergency services said, taking the number of dead in both attacks to 14.
Photos showed the black Audi, flipped upside down with its windows smashed out, being removed from the scene.
Catalan police tweeted that the suspects “carried an ax and knives in the car and belts with false explosives attached to the body,” adding that before being shot they had wounded a person in the face with a knife.
Alex Folch, 28, told CNN he saw the immediate aftermath of the shootout from his holiday apartment on the fifth floor of the Club Nautic Cambrils, on the Consulat de Mar.
He said he saw three people lying on the ground surrounded by police, one with what appeared to be “a metallic kind of belt” around the waist.
Folch said he could see snipers on the roof beside him and later heard controlled explosions conducted by police.
Carnage in Barcelona
The first attack began at about 5 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, in one of Barcelona’s most popular tourist districts.
A white van with blue markings careered into terrified crowds on Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s feted thoroughfare, when the street was packed with locals and tourists. At least 13 people were killed and more than 100 injured. The driver of the van fled on foot and was believed to be still at large on Friday.
“I saw people flying into the air and everyone was running into the shops on either side,” witness Ali Shirazinia told CNN. He saw the van drive past him.
Shirazinia said the driver appeared to be driving “in a zig-zag motion” as fast as he could, trying to hit as many people as possible. “It was just a really, really horrific scene of immediate carnage,” he said.
Thirteen people were killed, with the death toll expected to rise, while about 100 others were injured.
The ISIS media wing, Amaq, has said the Barcelona attackers were “soldiers of the Islamic State,” but stopped short of explicitly claiming responsibility for the attacks or providing evidence for their claims.
A car later ran over police officers at a checkpoint in Barcelona. Trapero said Friday that one of the occupants of the car was found to have been stabbed. He added that there was no link to any of the other incidents.
Explosion in Alcanar
The explosion in Alcanar on Wednesday night left one person dead — a Spanish national — and another seriously injured. Both were found inside the house. Six other people were also injured.
The house collapsed completely under the force of the blast, a Catalan fire department statement said.
One of the suspects arrested in connection with Thursday’s Barcelona attack was detained in Alcanar, Trapero told reporters.
“They were trying to make explosives out of butane gas among other things, there must have been some sort of accident that avoided greater damage,” said Trapero.
Shock, fear in Barcelona
Las Ramblas reopened Friday morning but reminders of the previous day’s horror were all around.
In some outdoor cafés, full glasses of beer and sangria sat out on tables, left behind after people scattered. Overturned chairs and napkins were strewn on the street. Waiters were beginning to pick up the pieces as restaurants opened.
Flowers, candles and messages of solidarity began to pile up at a makeshift shrine.
Some shocked residents and tourists had come to the normally bustling avenue to pay their respects to the attack victims.
Resident Federico Colmenarejo, 32, walked along Las Ramblas in a daze. His apartment overlooks the street — and he said a phone call from his grandmother at the time of the attack had saved his life because it had stopped him going out.
“Just to think how is it possible that I cross this street every day on my way to work. I can’t believe it. In Barcelona this never happens,” he told CNN.
The Catalan government said the Barcelona victims came from 34 countries. The first to be identified was an Italian, Bruno Gulotta, who worked in sales and marketing for Tom’s Hardware Italia. He was a much-loved colleague with a partner and two young children, the company said. He had been on holiday in Barcelona with his family.
Belgium’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Jose de Pierpont said one Belgian was among those killed in the attack.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that 26 French nationals were injured, at least 11 seriously.