Four victims were killed and 40 injured after being run over and stabbed in a lightning attack at the gates of British democracy on Wednesday (Mar 22). Police attributed the attack to “Islamist-related terrorism”.
The attack unfolded 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.
The attacker’s car struck pedestrians on the bridge before crashing into the railings surrounding the heavily-guarded Houses of Parliament, sowing first shock then panic in the seat of British power.
The assailant then ran through the gates brandishing a knife and stabbed a 48-year-old policeman to death before being shot dead by another officer.
Prime Minister Theresa May described the attack as “sick and depraved” and said that “the terrorist chose to strike at the heart of our capital city” in an attack on Britain’s democratic values.
Standing outside her Downing Street residence after an emergency cabinet meeting, May voiced defiance and said parliament would meet as normal on Thursday, while Britain’s security alert level would be kept unchanged.
“We will all move forward together, never giving in to terror and never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart,” said May, who was dressed in black.
May was in parliament at the time of the attack and was seen being ushered away in a silver car as what sounded like gunfire rang out, British media reported.
London mayor Sadiq Khan issued a statement saying the police were “dealing with the incident and an urgent investigation is underway”. He also thanked authorities and emergency services for their hard work and “tremendous bravery”.
— Mayor of London (@MayorofLondon) March 22, 2017
Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer Mark Rowley said the four victims included a policeman guarding parliament and three members of the public.
“Islamist-related terrorism is our assumption,” Rowley told journalists, adding that investigators believed they knew the identity of the assailant who was shot dead by police.
The attack came a year to the day after Islamic State militants killed 32 people in twin bomb attacks in Brussels and after a series of deadly assaults in Europe that had hitherto spared Britain.
Parliament was locked down for several hours and hundreds of lawmakers and visitors were later evacuated to nearby Westminster Abbey and the headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police.
An air ambulance flew in and police cordoned off a large area, while tourists on the London Eye, a popular visitor attraction, were stuck up to 135m in the air for more than an hour during the incident.
London’s air ambulance arrives at the Houses of Parliament in central London during an emergency incident. (Photo: AFP/Daniel Leal-Olivas)
“I saw three bodies lying on the ground and a whole lot of police. It was pretty terrifying,” said 16-year-old American Jack Hutchinson who was stranded on the observation wheel with his parents.
Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood, whose brother Jonathan was killed in the 2002 Bali bombing, was pictured with his face smeared with blood helping to give first aid to the fatally wounded police officer.
FRENCH, KOREANS, ROMANIANS HURT
Three French pupils on a school trip were among those hurt and a seriously injured woman was rescued from the River Thames following Wednesday’s incident.
Five South Korean tourists were wounded, the Yonhap news agency reported, while the Romanian foreign ministry said two Romanians were also injured.
A doctor at nearby St Thomas’ Hospital said they were treating people with “catastrophic” injuries.
Press Association news agency photos believed to be of the attacker lying on an ambulance stretcher showed he was wearing black clothes and had a beard.
Leader of Commons Lidington: ‘very clear advice from police is we should remain under suspension and the chamber should remain in lockdown’
— Olly Barratt (@ollybarratt) March 22, 2017
We were called at approx 2:40pm to reports of an incident at #Westminster Bridge. Being treated as a firearms incident – police on scene
— Metropolitan Police (@metpoliceuk) March 22, 2017
‘REAL SENSE OF PANIC’
British lawmaker Mary Creagh told AFP there was “a real sense of panic” as the attack unfolded.
Polish former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski was in a taxi on the bridge and said a car “mowed down at least five people … one of them bleeding profusely”.
Pictures of what happened next showed two people being attended to on the ground inside the vehicle entrance gates of parliament, with a knife visible on the cobblestones.
Three shots were heard on video footage.
Jason Groves, the Daily Mail newspaper’s political editor, said he saw the officer firing “with a handgun, and then gets closer to him and shoots him again from over him and he doesn’t get up”.
A Twitter user @ClaudiaScore said she had been on the bridge when she heard a loud bang. Video footage she recorded showed a car crashed into a railing with its bonnet still smoking.
On her Twitter page, Claudia said she “tried to check on the guy stuck under the car but couldn’t get to him” and that he “looked in really bad shape”. “I’m shaken up to say the least,” she added.
A car on Westminster Bridge has just mowed down at least 5 people. pic.twitter.com/tdCR9I0NgJ
— Radosław Sikorski (@sikorskiradek) March 22, 2017
An eyewitness at the scene tweeted that he heard what sounded like an explosion and raised voices outside parliament.
“I saw people running past the entrance to the New Palace Yard entrance to parliament, and then at least one person try to run into the Yard itself. A police officer chased this person and then wrestled them to the ground,” tweeted Owen Bennett, who is the deputy political editor of the Huffington Post UK.
“Shots were then fired, but I can’t remember how many and I didn’t see who fired them.”
‘WE ARE NOT AFRAID’
Britain’s allies reacted with shock and vowed to stand with London in the fight against terror.
US President Donald Trump and French President Francois Hollande both spoke to May and Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany stood with Britons “against all forms of terrorism”.
Lights on the Eiffel Tower in Paris will also be switched off at midnight in solidarity with victims of the attack.
Social media users shared an altered image of a London Underground sign reading “We Are Not Afraid” and the hashtag #PrayforLondon trended on Twitter.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) March 22, 2017
Injured people are assisted on Westminster Bridge in London. (Photo: Reuters / Toby Melville)
Britain’s last terror attack was the assassination of Member of Parliament Jo Cox by a pro-Nazi sympathiser in her constituency in northern England last June.
The worst previous attack in London was in 2005 when four British suicide bombers inspired by Al-Qaeda attacked the transport system, killing 52 innocent people.