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London anti-terror team investigating after van strikes pedestrians

June 19, 2017 10:51 AM
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London anti-terror team investigating after van strikes pedestrians

48-year-old driver detained by crowd before arrest

London police say counterterrorism officers are investigating after a vehicle struck pedestrians near a mosque in the city's north end early Monday morning.

Police said the 48-year-old man who was driving the van has been arrested and taken to a hospital as a precaution.

The crash occurred shortly after midnight, when the multiethnic neighbourhood was crowded with Muslims leaving the Finsbury Park mosque after Ramadan prayers. Muslim leaders called it a hate crime and asked the public to stay calm.

Eight people were taken to hospital and one person died at the scene, though police later said it wasn't immediately clear what caused the death. Another two people were treated at the scene for minor injuries.

Police say the person who died had apparently fallen ill prior to the attack.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, senior national co-ordinator for counterterrorism, said the attack unfolded while "a man was receiving first aid from the public at the scene."

"Any causative link between his death and the attack will form part of our investigation. It is too early to state if his death was as a result of the attack."

Harun Khan of the Muslim Council of Britain — citing eyewitness accounts and videos taken at the scene — appeared to confirm this later in the morning. He said a "white man in a van intentionally plowed into a group of worshippers who were already tending to someone who had been taken ill."

"It appears from eyewitness accounts that the perpetrator was motivated by Islamophobia," Khan said.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing police give emergency heart massage to at least one of the injured.

London police, already stretched by a series of recent tragedies including a high-rise fire in which 79 people are presumed dead and a terror attack near London Bridge that killed seven people, said they are putting more officers on the street to reassure the public.

The Metropolitan Police's Counter Terrorism Command is handling the investigation into the van attack near a mosque in north London. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

The chairman of the Finsbury Park Mosque says the van crash that hit worshippers was a "cowardly attack" and urged Muslims going to mosques to be vigilant.

Mohammed Kozbar said the Muslim community is "in shock." He complained that the "mainstream media" was unwilling to call the attack a terrorist incident for many hours.

Police closed the area to normal traffic. A helicopter circled above the area as a large cordon was established to keep motorists and pedestrians away.

Eyewitnesses told British media that the van seemed to have veered and hit people intentionally.

Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim organization, said that based on eyewitness reports, it seems to be a "deliberate attack against innocent Muslims."

The Finsbury Park mosque was associated with extremist ideology for several years after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, but was shut down and reorganized. It has not been associated with radical views for more than a decade.

It is located a short walk away from Emirates Stadium, home of the Arsenal football club in north London.

Prime Minister Theresa May described the crash as a "potential terrorist attack" and said she would chair an emergency security Cabinet session later Monday.

She said her thoughts were with the injured, their loved ones and emergency officials who responded to the incident.

Britain's terrorist alert has been set at "severe," meaning an attack is highly likely.

Earlier this month, a van veered into pedestrians on London Bridge, setting off vehicle and knife attacks that killed eight people and wounded many others on the bridge and in the nearby Borough Market area. Three Muslim extremists who carried out the attack were killed by police.

Manchester was also hit by a severe attack when a bomber killed more than 20 people at an Ariana Grande concert.

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