Spain says cell behind Catalan attacks dismantled after attacks across Europe

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Attacks over the past two days have killed 16 people in Russia, Spain and Finland

Attack eye-witness Marta Garcia cries after placing a flower in an impromptu memorial where a van crashed into pedestrians at Las Ramblas in Barcelona (Reuters)
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Saturday 19 August 2017 14:48 UTC
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Europe has been left reeling after a series of attacks claimed by the Islamic State group have killed 16 people in recent days, the latest a stabbing attack in the Siberian city of Surgat.

Police were on Saturday searching for the driver of a van that ploughed into a crowd in Barcelona on Thursday, killing 13 people, but the government said the suspected Islamist militant cell behind the attack had been dismantled.

An attack in Finland on Friday, which is suspected to be linked to IS but has yet to be claimed by the group, left two people dead in the city of Turku.

IS claimed responsibility for an attack by a knifeman in Russia's far north who wounded seven people on Saturday before he was shot dead, its propaganda agency said.

"The executor of the stabbing operation in the city of Surgut in Russia is a soldier of the Islamic State," Amaq said in a statement, after the group had also claimed responsibility for attacks in Spain on Thursday that left 14 dead.

Police have arrested four people in connection with the attack in Barcelona on Thursday and another in the Catalan seaside town of Cambrils, where a woman was killed when a car rammed passersby early on Friday.

Police shot dead five attackers in Cambrils and said they were wearing fake explosive belts and had an axe and knives in the vehicle.

None of the five are believed to be the driver who sped into Las Ramblas, leaving a trail of dead and injured among the crowds of tourists and local residents strolling along the Barcelona boulevard.

Catalan police said they were still looking for a man identified by the mayor's office in the town of Ripoll, where several of the suspected attackers lived, as 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub.

Spanish media reported that Abouyaaqoub was the driver of the van in Barcelona but the police could not confirm it.

The Spanish government said it now considered the cell behind the attacks out of action, though police in Catalonia would not confirm this.

"The cell has been fully dismantled in Barcelona, after examining the people who died, the people who were arrested and carrying out identity checks," Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido told a news conference.

He said Spain was maintaining its security alert level at four, one notch below the maximum level that would indicate another attack was imminent, but would reinforce security in crowded areas and tourist hotspots.

In the past 13 months, militants have used vehicles as weapons to kill nearly 130 people in France, Germany, Britain, Sweden and Spain.

The driver in the Barcelona attack abandoned the van and fled on foot on Thursday after ploughing into the crowd. Fifty people were still in hospital on Saturday following that attack, with 12 in a critical condition.

Many were foreign tourists. The Mediterranean region of Catalonian is thronged in the summer months with visitors drawn to its beaches and the port city of Barcelona's museums and tree-lined boulevards.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks in Cambrils and Barcelona, a statement by the militant group said on Saturday.

Two dead in Finland

Finnish police said Saturday that a Moroccan asylum seeker targeted women in a stabbing spree that left two people dead, in what is being investigated as a terrorist attack.

Police shot and wounded the knife-wielding suspect on Friday, arresting him minutes after an afternoon stabbing rampage at a busy market square in Turku in southwestern Finland.

The man went after women specifically, killing two women, police said. Eight other people were injured, among them six women.

"We think that the attacker especially targeted women, and the men were wounded after coming to the defence of the women," superintendent Christa Granroth of Finland's National Bureau of Investigation told reporters.

Investigators had initially probed the stabbings as murders, "but in light of further information received during the night, the offences now include murders with terrorist intent and their attempts," police said in a statement.

Police identified the suspect as an 18-year-old Moroccan citizen who arrived in Finland in early 2016 and who had sought asylum. His name was not disclosed and his motive was not yet known.

"We tried to talk with the attacker in hospital but he didn't want to speak," Granroth said.

The suspect is being treated in hospital for a gunshot wound to the thigh.

Media reports said his asylum request had been rejected, but police would not confirm this, saying only that his case had been processed by migration authorities.

Police said they were examining whether the suspect had any link to the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for twin terror attacks in Spain on Thursday and early Friday.

"Whether or not there is a connection to IS will be one of the main focuses of the investigation," Finnish intelligence agency SUPO director Antti Pelttari told reporters.