Fourteen people were injured, some of them critically, when a car crashed into pedestrians on a busy Melbourne street Thursday. Police said it was a “deliberate” act but that there was no evidence to indicate it was a terror attack.
Victoria state police said they had arrested the driver of the car after it “collided with a number of pedestrians” in downtown Melbourne at a busy intersection just before 5 p.m. local time. A second man was also arrested.
Local media showed photos of one man wearing a long-sleeve shirt being dragged from a car, while a bearded second man wearing a red checked shirt was seen handcuffed and sitting on the ground.
— 7 News Sydney (@7NewsSydney) December 21, 2017
“We believe based on what we have seen that it is a deliberate act. The motivations are unknown,” Victoria Police’s Commander Russell Barrett told reporters in Melbourne.
The driver, a 32-year-old Australian man of Afghan descent, was known to police on “historical assault matters” and has a history of drug use, Victoria state Police Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said. “At this time we do not have any evidence or intelligence to indicate a connection with terrorism,” he told reporters in Melbourne, noting that counter-terror officials would remain involved in the investigation to be sure there was no connection.
Paramedics evacuated 13 people — some of whom were seriously injured in the collision on Flinders Street between Elizabeth and Swanston streets — to hospitals, Ambulance Victoria said. Police said 14 people were injured in all.
Sky News Australia reported that a preschool child with a head injury was taken to a hospital in serious condition.
Citing witnesses, Sky said a white Suzuki SUV with two men inside drove into the crowd, with no signs the vehicle made an effort to slow down, and then crashed into a bollard.
In a tweet, police appealed to members of the public to upload any images they might have of the incident to a cloud address to help assist with their investigation.
A witness, Sue, told Melbourne radio station 3AW that she heard screams and saw “people flying everywhere.”
“We could hear this noise, as we looked left, we saw this white car, it just mowed everybody down,” she said. “People are flying everywhere. We heard thump, thump. People are running everywhere.”
Another witness, John, told ABC Radio Melbourne that he saw an “SUV coming at high speed.”
“[I] really just heard the collision with people with bags and what must be shopping trolleys — and I hope not prams,” he said. “I’ve really never seen anything like this before and I haven’t stopped shaking.”
The intersection is one of Melbourne’s busiest, a local shop owner told national broadcaster ABC, and is particularly crowded at this time of the year ahead of the Christmas break, with school vacation underway.
Measures against vehicle attacks
The incident came nearly a year after a car mowed down pedestrians in Melbourne’s busiest mall in January, killing six people. The driver, whose case is still being heard in court, had been pursued by police prior to the rampage after he had allegedly stabbed his brother. The attack, which was not terror-related, shocked Australians and took place near Melbourne Park where top tennis stars were playing in 2017’s opening Grand Slam.
Canberra has become increasingly worried about homegrown extremism and officials say they have prevented 13 terror attacks on home soil in the past few years.
The Australian government in August unveiled a strategy aimed at preventing vehicle terror attacks carried out in crowded public places. Suggested steps include deterrent options like fencing and closed circuit cameras, and delaying objects such as trees and bollards to slow down vehicles.
Melbourne has also been installing a public siren system and more security cameras to warn people of a possible terrorist attack or other serious threats.
But the Age newspaper said the warning sirens had not been activated for Thursday’s incident, and police did not appear to have enacted counter-terrorism lock-down strategies either.
While there was not yet any clear motive for Thursday’s incident, there have been several cases of vehicles being used to deliberately maim and kill.
The most deadly such case was in the southern French city of Nice on July 14, 2016, when 31-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel plowed a 19-ton truck down a beach-side promenade, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds more.
Almost exactly one year ago, on December 12, another Tunisian national, 24-year-old Anis Amri, hijacked a truck and slammed it into crowds of people at a Christmas market in Berlin. A total of 12 people died in that attack with dozens injured. Amri was shot dead four days later in Milan, with the Islamic State group claiming responsibility.
More recently, eight people were killed in New York when a pickup truck was driven into cyclists and pedestrians, in what was described as the first deadly “act of terror” in the city since the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Other deadly attacks using vehicles have taken place in London, Stockholm, Barcelona and multiple times in Israel and the West Bank.