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'I could see people being hit': London suffers attack at heart of democracy

Five people killed and at least 40 injured in attack near parliament that many had feared was bound to happen
A police officer wards away onlookers after the attack at parliament (AFP)

LONDON - The car careered down Westminster Bridge, smashing into anyone it could reach - teenagers, tourists, commuters, police officers. In the aftermath more than a dozen people lay on the pavement, bleeding from catastrophic injuries, as the car sped onwards to Parliament Square, its driver seeking to strike at the heart of British democracy.

The attacker smashed into the railings outside the Houses of Parliament, and jumped from his car to stab a police officer inside the grounds of the Palace of Westminster, before a burst of gunfire rang out to end what he must have known was a suicide mission.

London on Wednesday suffered its first mulitple casualty terrorist attack since the tube bombings of 2005, and joined European cities including Munich, Brussels and Paris on the roll call of recent targets.

I could see people being hit... by a car at speed - it was harrowing.

- Rob Lyon, witness

Four people were dead - the police officer at Parliament, three members of public on the bridge, and the attacker himself. Now only the motive of the lone attack remains unanswered.

It began at about 2.40pm local time, at the north end of a windswept Westminster Bridge, when witnesses reported screaming and the sound of crunching as a car, a black Hyundai i40, crashed through barriers and sped down the pavement.

Steve Voake, 55, who was approaching from the opposite side, initially thought there had been a traffic accident. The scene he found proved it was much more.

"When I was about in the middle, that's when the screaming started and a bus stopped," he told the Press Association.

"Then as I looked around I saw more than one body. Then I saw the body in the water."

Rob Lyon, 34, from Rugby, said: "I heard a wheel definitely hit a kerb, quite a loud crunch noise, I looked up and saw a car clearly hitting people as it came towards me.

"I instinctively jumped off the pavement. I could see people being hit... by a car at speed - it was harrowing."

"I went into shock mode," he said, telling PA that he was "probably a metre from being hit" himself.

One woman was plucked from the Thames, seriously injured but a survivor of the chaos that unfolded above her. Three French children and two Romanians were among those wounded.

The driver moved on to his next target, the Houses of Parliament, crashing again at speed into safety railings before continuing his deadly attack on foot as he stabbed at police guarding the MPs as they debated pensions in the Commons.

The crashed car outside the Houses of Parliament (screengrab)

Witnesses described scenes of terror as he lunged at one officer, reportedly stabbing several times.

"We were just walking up to the station and there was a loud bang and a guy, someone, crashed a car and took some pedestrians out," said Rick Longley

"They were just laying there and then the whole crowd just surged around the corner by the gates just opposite Big Ben.

A guy came past with a big knife and just started plunging it into the policeman

- Rick Longley, witness

"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."

After the attacker was shot dead - witnesses reported hearing a warning shot and then a longer burst of gunfire - MPs, police and members rushed to the aid of the fallen officer.

Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood among those who rushed to help, but all help was in vain.

Within an instant, armed police were fanning out around New Palace Yard, yelling at passers-by to get away from the area

Parliament Square was swiftly cordoned off, as medics arrived at the scene.

Drivers on Westminster Bridge were forced to abandon their vehicles.

"I was shocked. Totally shocked," one of them told Middle East Eye. "Originally we thought it was like a cyclist accident.

"But when we looked ahead there was more people lying on the pavement and then the armed police asked us to abandon our vehicle."

Shortly after 5pm, MPs who had been evacuated from Portcullis House, next to Westminster Palace, and into the Metropolitan police headquarters in New Scotland Yard began to file out and speak to the media.

Tom Brake, a London Liberal Democrat MP, explained the events as they took place.

"I came down on to the ground floor of Portcullis House to go through to the chamber to vote and, as I was walking down the escalator, I could see people running towards me and an MP Penny Mordaunt shouted very loudly 'we've got to get out'," he explained, "so we turned round and headed in the opposite direction and ended up coming out of the exit into the tube station and then walked out on to the Embankment."

"We've been in Scotland Yard since."

Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said he was shaken by the incident.

"You’re in the middle of it, you don't realise what's going on do you, you don't realise there's completely innocent people being caught up in it," he said.

"You see these things happening in other parts of the world and it makes your blood run cold and it's a different thing entirely when you're amidst it."

A Labour MP, Mary Creagh, was one of the first politicians to speak to press on the scene. She explained that she had moved to close Westminster underground station in order to prevent any more people from entering the zone of the attack.

"[The police were] on the scene very very quickly, but we were there in the moments after the attacks happened so there was that curious stillness where time seems to stand still and nobody can make decisions," she told reporters.

"I just took the decision to try shut the tube stations."

UK far-right leader Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) also rushed to the attack scene and was immediately accused of exploiting the victims of the attack for propaganda purposes.

READ: 'Gory opportunist' Tommy Robinson accused of exploiting UK attack

He was in Westminster as the full scale of the attack was still unfolding, where he told Middle East Eye: "This is Islam, this is an act of jihad".

"We have had 450 former ISIS fighters been allowed to return to our country,” he added, before any details of who or what had carried out the attack were known.

It was, by all accounts, a sideshow. By 6pm, police had gathered enough information to tell Londoners, the nation and the world what had just happened. 

Mark Rowley, the acting deputy commissioner for the Metropolitan police, put it in cold numbers - four dead including a police officer, two members of the public and the attacker, and 20 others injured. The attacker was acting alone, he added.

He said that extra police officers would be walking the streets of London and called on Londoners to be "vigilant" when returning home - but he also called for community cohesion and warned against a backlash.

Mark Rowley speaks to reporters about the incident outside New Scotland Yard (MEE/Alex MacDonald)

"Our strength as a city depends on our ability to stand together at such a terrible time," he explained.

"This is a day we planned for, but hoped never to happen. Sadly it's now a reality."

As they did with attacks in other countries, Facebook activated their Safety Check feature allowing residents to mark themselves as "safe" during the incident.

A statement from UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who was in parliament during the attack, said that her thoughts were with the victims of the attack.

May chaired a meeting of the Cobra cabinet-level emergency team on Wednesday evening.

The Muslim Council of Britain said it was shocked and saddened by the events in Westminster.

"We condemn this attack and while it is still too early to speculate on the motives, our thoughts and prayers are for the victims and those affected. We pay tribute to the police and emergency services who handled this with bravery.

"The Palace of Westminster is the centre of our democracy and we must all ensure that it continues to serve our country and its people with safety and security."

No motive has been determined, and the dead attacker has not been named.

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