A white SUV drove into a busy downtown intersection packed with pedestrians in the Australian city of Melbourne, injuring at least 14 people and raising fears of a terrorist attack.
Commander Russell Barret from Victoria police told reporters it is believed to be “a deliberate act” but said the motivation so far was unclear.
“It is still in the early stages of an investigation,” he told reporters, adding that several wounded were in critical condition.
Witnesses said the white Suzuki didn’t appear to brake as it plowed through one of the main intersections in Australia’s second-largest city, full of Christmas shoppers and commuters heading home, they said.
“All you could hear was bang, bang, bang, bang,” Jim Stoupas, the owner of a nearby doughnut shop, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “The only thing that slowed him down was hitting pedestrians. All you could hear were the sounds of the car hitting people and the screams.”
When the car came to a stop about eight or 10 bystanders pulled the driver from the car and held him until police officers arrived a few minutes later, another witness told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. The driver appeared to be unconscious.
Victorian state police said in a statement the driver of the vehicle and a second man were in police custody after the incident, which occurred on Flinders Street in the city’s central business district around 4:45 p.m.
Media reports said 13 people were been taken to hospitals, including a preschool aged child in serious condition with head injuries. Police have asked for witnesses to step forward while cautioning everyone else to avoid the area.
The incident took place in downtown Melbourne during one of the busiest times of the day in front of a train station that is the city’s equivalent of New York’s Grand Central Station.
The attack on a downtown street filled with Christmas shoppers as well as late afternoon revelers was reminiscent of a string of terrorist attacks in Europe, including Spain, France and Germany where attackers used vehicles as deadly weapons.
A long-standing military ally of the United States, Australia has deployed forces to Iraq and Syria to assist with the fight against Islamic State.
Government officials have warned Australians that a terrorist attack or attacks are likely, and Melbourne recently decided to install a public address system in the downtown area to warn of an attack, according to media reports.
Melbourne mayor Robert Doyle two weeks ago said the city faced the threat of an individual inspired by a foreign terrorist organization.
“That’s always going to be hard to stop, but so far our intelligence services and our police have done a magnificent job in keeping us safe,” he said in an interview published on Dec. 7.
Vehicle attacks have become a common choice of Islamic State-inspired terrorists, and they are among the hardest kinds of attacks to stop given the easy accessibility of cars and small vans compared to explosives or firearms.
In the most devastating vehicle attack so far, over 80 people were killed by a truck in the southern French city of Nice last year.
Trucks and cars have also used in a number of other attacks since then. In London, the driver of a van plowed into a group of people on Westminster Bridge this March. Investigators later found indications that the incident constituted “Islamist-related terrorism.”
In October, a pickup truck collided with a NYC bus after speeding down a protected bike path, killing eight people. In a handwritten note, the driver had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
On Tuesday, Germans commemorated the anniversary of a vehicle attack on a Berlin Christmas market last year in which 12 were killed and over 50 injured.
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