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. He will be given a mental health evaluation.
The crash occurred at a time 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.
Police said the driver was detained by the crowd until police arrived. Sky News reported that the mosque’s imam prevented the crowd from beating the attacker.
The crash occurred shortly after midnight, when police received reports of a collision between a van and pedestrians. Police said eight of the injured were hospitalized; the other two had minor injuries and were treated at the scene.
Police said in a statement Monday morning that the person who died at the scene 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 Mayor Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim to serve in that position, said extra police would be deployed. He called the incident a “horrific terrorist attack.”
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.
London 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.