Police extend hunt for Barcelona attack suspect across Europe

Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22, continues to elude police despite 800 checkpoints and increase in anti-terrorism officers

The hunt for the main suspect in the Barcelona terrorist attack has been extended to other European countries, a Catalan government official has said.

Police said on Monday they believe Younes Abouyaaqoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan national, was the driver of the van that ploughed through crowds of tourists in Las Ramblas on Thursday, killing 13 people and leaving dozens more seriously injured.

“This person is no longer just being sought in Catalonia but in all European countries, this is an effort by European police,” Joaquim Forn, the Catalan interior minister, told a local radio station.

Police say they are investigating the possibility that, some 90 minutes later, the suspect stabbed and killed a Spanish man and stole his car.

Police have set up 800 vehicle checkpoints and tripled the number of officers working on anti-terrorism operations after the attack, but the fugitive continues to evade them.

Police are also investigating whether the suspect stabbed a Spanish man and stole his car, some 90 minutes after the Barcelona attack. The car was found in Sant Just Desvern, a small town 25km away, on Thursday night.

Regional police chief Josep Lluís Trapero told a press conference on Sunday that the possibility that Abouyaaqoub has escaped to France had not been ruled out.

Spanish newspaper El País published images on Monday of what it said was Abouyaaqoub apparently making a getaway on foot after the Barcelona van attack. The three images show a slim man wearing sunglasses walking through what El País says is La Boqueria market, just off Las Ramblas.

Forn played down the risks to the public, saying police actions had “neutralised” the ability of the jihadists to cause more carnage.

But the limits of the security forces to identify dangers have become more apparent as it has emerged that intelligence agencies had no prior warning of the 12-man jihadist cell that was originally planning a large-scale bomb attack before an accidental explosion forced a change of plans.

Five were shot by a police officer during a second attack in Cambrils, where a Spanish woman was killed, four have been detained. Of the remaining three, it is possible that two were killed in the explosion at the bomb-making factory in Alcanar on Wednesday night, though the remains found at the site are still being tested.

Terror cell graphic

Police have pieced together fragments from 120 gas canisters that exploded at the house last week, killing two people. Forensic experts are still working through the rubble, but Catalan police said the explosives found at the site were of the type often used by Islamic State.

The suspected jihadists had been preparing bombs for “one or more attacks in Barcelona”, Trapero told reporters, revealing that traces of TATP explosive had been identified.

Another police official said three vans tied to the investigation had been rented with Abouyaaqoub’s credit card: the one used in the Las Ramblas attack, another found in the north-eastern town of Ripoll, where the main suspects lived, and a third found in Vic, on the road between the two.

Documents found in the Las Ramblas van show the three vehicles had been rented earlier in the day. Police say they have found four vehicles that may be related to the case.

Trapero said the working assumption was that the terrorists improvised the van attack after their original plot was scuppered by the blast the previous day.

Trapero was unable to comment on reports that the initial target was Sagrada Família, the Gaudí-designed basilica that is one of the most popular tourist sites in the country. On Sunday morning, it hosted the Spanish king and other dignitaries at a mass for the victims.

King Felipe, Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, and the mayors of Barcelona, Madrid and Cambrils attended the event, which was open to the public.

Police roadblocks have been set up in many parts of Catalonia as the hunt continues for Abouyaaqoub, the only suspected member of the jihadist cell who has not been either detained or killed.

King Felipe (right) and Queen Letizia speak with the archbishop of Barcelona, Cardinal Joan Josep Omella, as they leave after a mass to commemorate victims of the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils.
King Felipe (right) and Queen Letizia speak with the archbishop of Barcelona, Cardinal Joan Josep Omella, as they leave after a mass to commemorate victims of the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils. Photograph: Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images

Twelve of the 14 people killed in the two attacks have been named. DNA tests are being carried out on the remaining two bodies. Once the identities are confirmed, police will inform the courts, then the families and finally the public. Of the injured, 53 are still in hospital, 13 of them in a critical condition.

Police attention has also focused on Abdelbaki Es Satty, the imam of Ripoll, the small town in northern Catalonia that was home to most of the attackers. Police are trying to establish whether his DNA matches the human remains found after the cell’s bomb factory blew up in Alcanar. Police now say they have found the DNA of at least three different individuals at the site.

Es Satty, whom the police suspect of radicalising the young Ripoll jihadists, was jailed in Castellón in Valencia in 2010 for smuggling cannabis. He was released in 2014. It is reported that while in prison he met Rachid Aglif, who is serving 18 years for his part in the 2004 Madrid bomb attacks that left 192 dead and about 2,000 people wounded.

His name also appears in a report after five men were arrested south of Barcelona in Vilanova i la Geltrú on charges of recruiting young men to fight in Iraq.

Es Satty moved to Ripoll about two years ago and became the imam of the Annur Islamic community at one of the Pyrenean town’s two mosques. The man who shared his flat in Ripoll said that Es Satty left last Tuesday, saying he was going back to Morocco for a three-month holiday.

“I don’t know what’s happened, I don’t know how to feel, they’re my sons but look at the evil they’ve done,” said Hechami Gasi, father of Mohamed and Omar Hychami, two of the suspects shot dead in Cambrils in the early hours of Friday morning. “The imam must have put these ideas in their heads. They were good boys.”

The Spanish government has maintained the level 4 terrorist alert that was in place before the attacks. If the highest level, 5, were invoked the army would be likely to be called in to patrol the streets.

Mourners in Barcelona light candles at Las Ramblas memorial on Sunday night

Spain is in three days of mourning. Las Ramblas is now filled with about a dozen ever-widening pavement tributes of candles, flowers and messages of sympathy and defiance.

In Seville, anti-Islamic slogans have appeared on a building belonging to a Muslim foundation. In a mass heard in Valencia Cathedral, Antonio Cañizares, the archbishop of Valencia, warned against “rifts between religions”.

“There is no greater blasphemy than the murder of innocents,” he said. “Islamic jihadism knows nothing but hate, hate for God and for his most beloved creatures, human beings.”

Puigdemont said the attack would not succeed in turning people against one another. “We reject xenophobia and radicalism,” the Catalan president said.

Forn appeared to drag the sensitive question of independence into the tragedy on Saturday night when he said on Catalan television that among the dead “there are two Catalans and two Spaniards”. As things stand, Catalans are Spanish citizens, although Catalonia’s long-awaited referendum on independence is scheduled to be held on 1 October.

The Catalan government and Barcelona city council have jointly convened a march against terrorism in the city next Saturday.

Contributors

Jonathan Watts and Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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