London: A knife-wielding man went on a deadly rampage in the heart of Britain's seat of power Wednesday, plowing a car into pedestrians on London's Westminster Bridge before stabbing a police officer to death inside the gates of Parliament. Five people were killed, including the assailant, and 40 others were injured in what Prime Minister Theresa May condemned as a "sick and depraved terrorist attack."
Lawmakers, lords, staff and visitors were locked down after the man was shot by police within the perimeter of Parliament, just yards (meters) from entrances to the building itself and in the shadow of the iconic Big Ben clock tower. He died, as did three pedestrians on the bridge, and the police officer.
A doctor who treated the wounded from the bridge said some had "catastrophic" injuries. Three police officers, several French teenagers on a school trip, two Romanian tourists and five South Korean visitors were among the injured.
Police said they were treating the attack as terrorism. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism chief Mark Rowley said police believed there was only one attacker, "but it would be foolish to be overconfident early on." He said an unarmed policeman, three civilians and the attacker died. Forty others, including three police officers, were injured.
Rowley told reporters the attack started when a car was driven over Westminster Bridge, hitting and injuring members of the public and three police officers.
"A car then crashed near to Parliament and at least one man, armed with a knife, continued the attack and tried to enter parliament," Rowley said.
Islamic extremism was suspected in the attack, Rowley said, adding that authorities believe they know the assailant's identity but would not reveal it while the investigation was ongoing.
The threat level for international terrorism in the UK was already listed at severe, meaning an attack was "highly likely."
Speaking outside 10 Downing Street after chairing a meeting of government's emergency committee, COBRA, May said that level would not change. She said attempts to defeat British values of democracy and freedom through terrorism would fail.
"The location of this attack was no accident," she said in a statement late in the evening.
"The terrorist chose to strike at the heart of our capital city, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech."
Any attempt to defeat those values through violence was "doomed to failure", May said.
"Thursday morning Parliament will meet as normal," she said. Londoners and visitors "will all move forward together, never giving in to terror and never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart."
US President Donald Trump was among world leaders offering condolences, and in Paris, the lights of the Eiffel Tower were to be dimmed in solidarity with London.
London has been a target for terrorism many times over past decades. Just this weekend, hundreds of armed police took part in an exercise simulating a "marauding" terrorist attack on the River Thames.
Wednesday was the anniversary of suicide bombings in the Brussels airport and subway that killed 32 people last year, and the latest events echoed recent vehicle attacks in Berlin and Nice, France.
In the House of Commons, legislators were holding a series of votes on pensions when deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle announced that the sitting was being suspended and told lawmakers not to leave.
Parliament was locked down for several hours, and the adjoining Westminster subway station was shuttered.
The attack began early Wednesday afternoon as a driver in a grey SUV slammed into pedestrians on the bridge linking Parliament to the south bank of the River Thames.
Former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski was in a car crossing the bridge when he heard "something like a car hitting metal sheet" and then saw people lying on the pavement.
"I saw one person who gave no signs of life. One man was bleeding from his head. I saw five people who were at least seriously injured," Sikorski told Poland's TVN24.
Ambulances arrived within minutes to treat people who lay scattered along the length of the bridge. One bloodied woman lay surrounded by a scattering of postcards.
The car crashed into railings on the north side of the bridge, less than 200 yards (meters) from the entrance to Parliament. As people scattered in panic, witnesses saw a man holding a knife run toward the building.
"The whole crowd just surged around the corner by the gates just opposite Big Ben," said witness Rick Longley. "A guy came past my right shoulder with a big knife and just started plunging it into the policeman. I have never seen anything like that. I just can't believe what I just saw."
The attacker managed to get past a gate into Parliament's fenced-in New Palace Yard, a cobbled courtyard in the shadow of the Big Ben clock tower.
Daily Mail journalist Quentin Letts said a man in black attacked the police officer before being shot two or three times as he tried to storm the building.
"As this attacker was running towards the entrance two plain-clothed guys with guns shouted at him what sounded like a warning, he ignored it and they shot two or three times and he fell," Letts told the BBC.
The attacker fell to the cobbles just yards from the entrance to 1,000-year-old Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the parliamentary complex, busy with visitors and school groups. Beyond that, a corridor leads to the building's Central Lobby, flanked by House of Commons and House of Lords chambers.
The prime minister was among lawmakers near the Commons at the time of the attack and was quickly ushered away by security officers and driven back to Downing Street.
To get that far, the attacker would have had to evade the armed officers who patrol the Parliament complex in pairs, as well as Parliament's own security staff, who don't carry guns.
The attack unfolded near some of the city's most famous tourist sites, including the London Eye, a large Ferris wheel with pods that overlook the capital. It was halted after the attack, stranding visitors in the pods, with an aerial view of the attack scene.
London Ambulance Service said medics treated 12 people for serious injuries and eight who were less seriously hurt.
Dr Colleen Anderson of St Thomas' Hospital said some of the wounded had "catastrophic" injuries.
Lawmakers caught up in chaos
A Reuters photographer saw at least a dozen people injured on the bridge. His photographs showed people lying on the ground, some of them bleeding heavily and one under a bus.
A woman was pulled alive, but with serious injuries, from the Thames, the Port of London Authority said. The circumstances of her fall into the river were unknown.
The French Foreign Ministry said that three students on a school trip from Saint-Joseph in the Brittany town of Concarneau were among the injured. Two Romanians were also among the injured, the country's Foreign Ministry said.
Several members of parliament (MPs) and senior officials were caught up in the chaos. Conservative lawmaker Tobias Ellwood, whose brother was killed in the Bali terror attack in 2002, performed first aid on the wounded police officer, who later died. About 10 yards away lay the assailant.
"I tried to stem the flow of blood and give mouth to mouth while waiting for the medics to arrive but I think he had lost too much blood," Ellwood said. "He had multiple wounds, under the arm and in the back."
The dead police officer was identified as Keith Palmer, 48, with 15 years of service.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said there would be additional police officers on the city streets to keep Londoners and visitors safe.
"We stand together in the face of those who seek to harm us and destroy our way of life. We always have, and we always will. Londoners will never be cowed by terrorism," he said.
Parliament's lower House of Commons, which was in session at the time, was suspended and lawmakers were asked to stay inside the building for several hours. May said parliament would convene as normal on Thursday in a sign that the attack would not disrupt life in the capital.
However, a visit by Queen Elizabeth to officially open the new headquarters of London's police force, which had been planned for Thursday, was postponed "in light of today's events," Buckingham Palace said.
In a telephone call with May, President Donald Trump offered Britain the full cooperation and support of the United States, the White House said. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned the attack as "horrific acts of violence".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg were among foreign leaders who expressed shock and solidarity.
No signs of life
Eyewitnesses described scenes of panic during the attack.
"I just saw a car go out of control and just go into pedestrians on the bridge," said Bernadette Kerrigan, who had been on a tour bus on the bridge, in an interview with Sky News.
"As we were going across the bridge, we saw people lying on the floor, they were obviously injured. I saw about 10 people maybe. And then the emergency services started to arrive. Everyone was just running everywhere."
Former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who witnessed the attack from a taxi as he crossed the bridge, said he saw five victims and made a video of the scene.
"I heard something that sounded like a small car crash. Then I looked out of the window and saw that there was one person lying on the asphalt," he told Reuters.
"I did not see the face of the person lying on the asphalt, but the person was not moving, it was not showing any signs of life. One of the men I saw, his head was bleeding very badly. But the person I filmed — no, that person was not showing any signs of life."
Journalist Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail newspaper told LBC radio that he had witnessed the stabbing of the policeman and the shooting of the assailant from his office in the parliament building.
"He (the assailant) ran in through the open gates ... He set about one of the policemen with what looked like a stick," Letts said.
"The policeman fell over on the ground and it was quite horrible to watch and then having done that, he disengaged and ran towards the House of Commons entrance used by MPs and got about 20 yards or so when two plain-clothed guys with guns shot him."
In Edinburgh, the Scottish parliament suspended a planned debate and vote on independence as the news from London came in.
Britain is on its second-highest alert level of "severe" meaning an attack by militants is considered highly likely.
London has often been the target of terrorist attacks, from IRA campaigns in the 1970s and 80s to more recent Islamist plots.
On 7 July, 2005, four Al-Qaeda-inspired British bombers blew themselves up on three subway trains and a bus in London, killing 52 people.
British security forces say they have thwarted some 13 terror plots over the past four years, but in recent years the UK has largely been spared major international terror attacks such as the ones seen in Belgium and France.
Last year, a far-right supporter shot and killed British lawmaker Jo Cox, who had campaigned for the UK to remain in the European Union. Prior to that, an attacker claiming to be motivated by Syria stabbed three people at a London subway station.
The most gruesome recent attack occurred in 2013 when two Muslim converts of Nigerian descent attacked Lee Rigby, a British soldier who was walking down the street. The men ran Rigby down with their vehicle and then used a cleaver to hack him to death as bystanders watched in horror.
With inputs from Associated Press and Reuters
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Updated Date: Mar 23, 2017 09:02:00 IST