Barcelona terror suspect shot dead by police

An armed officer standing guard near Subirats during the police operation. Photo: AP
An armed officer standing guard near Subirats during the police operation. Photo: AP

The fugitive who was behind the terrorist attacks last week in Spain was shot by police officers Monday afternoon in a village about 20 miles west of Barcelona, police announced.

The fugitive, Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22, used a van to mow down a crowd on Las Ramblas, Barcelona's most famous boulevard, on Thursday afternoon, killing 13 people, according to police. He then stole a car, killed its driver and made his getaway, with the driver's body still inside.

A manhunt stretching across Europe was undertaken, and France, Italy and other countries tightened security and border controls amid widespread speculation that Abouyaaqoub might have fled Spain; over the weekend, authorities said they could not be certain that he was still on Spanish soil.

An image of suspect Younes Abouyaaqoub, released by the Spanish Interior Ministry. Photo: AP

An image of suspect Younes Abouyaaqoub, released by the Spanish Interior Ministry. Photo: AP

But in the late afternoon on Monday, attention quickly turned to Subirats, a collection of villages about 20 miles west of Barcelona. The town was placed on lockdown as authorities announced that a man wearing an explosive belt had been "shot down," but it was not immediately clear if he was killed.

The identity of the suspect was not clear for about two hours; a robot, operated by a police bomb squad, was going through the explosive device to ensure that there was no danger.

But at 6.20pm, local time, police announced that the man who had been shot was indeed Abouyaaqoub.

Residents of Subirats appeared frightened but unharmed.

"They told us to keep inside, to be ready for anything," Pere Pons, the mayor of Subirats, told Catalonian radio.

"A little while ago the police called us to stay in our houses. To keep calm, to wait for more police to arrive."

Pau Perez, the man whose care is belived to have been hijacked by Abouyaaqoub, is the 15th victim to be found dead.

Authorities also said Monday that an imam believed to have inspired the twin attacks had almost certainly died Wednesday when a house that the terrorists used as a bomb factory blew up - an event that appears to have precipitated the attacks.

The imam, Abdelbaki Essati, preached in the town of Ripoll, home to many of the members of the terrorist cell, which authorities say included at least 12 people, of whom Abouyaaqoub is the only one thought to be on the run.

Seven year-old Australian boy Julian Cadman was one of 13 people killed as a result of the terror attack in Barcelona last week. Photo: Facebook

Seven year-old Australian boy Julian Cadman was one of 13 people killed as a result of the terror attack in Barcelona last week. Photo: Facebook

Investigators believe that the planning for the plot may have begun not long after Essati's arrival, a year ago, at the second of two mosques where he worked in Ripoll.

The remains of two people were found at the house where the explosion took place, in the town of Alcanar, south of Barcelona.

Major Josep LluĂ­s Trapero, police chief in the Catalonia region, of which Barcelona is the capital, said at a news conference on Monday prior to the shooting of Abouyaaqoub that police had "solid indications" that Essati was one of them, although they were awaiting the results of DNA tests.

The other is yet to be positively identified.

Police also said Monday that they were certain that Abouyaaqoub was the driver of the van.

They released surveillance camera images of Abouyaaqoub, wearing a striped polo shirt, and gave details about how he managed to escape from downtown Barcelona.

"We believe he was the only one in the van and driving it," Trapero said.

Abouyaaqoub fled on foot from Las Ramblas, police said, and crossed another popular tourist destination, La Boqueria, a busy food market. He then spotted a stationary car in the city's university district, killed the owner and put the body on the back seat. Then he forced his way through a police checkpoint.

The driver, Perez, was found stabbed to death in his vehicle on the outskirts of Barcelona. Mr Trapero said that the police couldn't yet establish Abouyaaqoub's whereabouts beyond that point.

Two of the 15 people killed were children, including Julian Cadman, a seven-year-old who had both Australian and British citizenship. Six victims were Spanish, including one who also held an Argentine passport, three were Italians, two Portuguese, one Belgian, one American and one Canadian, authorities said.

Fifty victims of the attacks remained in hospitals Monday, 12 of them in critical condition, down from the 126 who were taken to hospitals immediately after the attacks last week.

The police chief said that the investigation had gained an international dimension, implying that other countries' police and intelligence agencies were now involved, but did not provide details.

He also would not comment on reports that the imam had long-standing ties to extremists and had spent time overseas, including in Belgium early last year, shortly before terrorists attacked the airport and subway in Brussels. The imam spent time in prison in Spain on drug-related charges, but had no record for terrorism-related activities.

Mr Trapero defended the level of police surveillance before the attacks, the most serious since 2004, when terrorists bombed commuter trains in Madrid, killing 192 people.

The country has avoided major acts of jihadi terrorism since then, even as the Islamic State group and other extremists struck other cities across Europe.

Mr Trapero said that it would be "playing dirty" to accuse the police of lapses, and said the police never received information that would have justified acting against members of the cell.

New York Times, Reuters