• UPDATE: British police say five people died in the terror attack outside Parliament. Counter-terrorism chief Mark Rowley said one policeman, three civilians and the attacker died. He said a further 40 people were wounded.
Four people, including a police officer, were killed in what police described as a “terrorist incident” outside the British parliament in London on Wednesday. At least 20 were injured, with some suffering “catastrophic injuries” when a car mounted the pavement on Westminster Bridge in central London and ploughed into pedestrians.
The car came to a stop when it crashed into railings and the driver leapt out and ran to the gates leading into the green outside the Palace of Westminster, home of the UK parliament. He managed to force his way through the gates and stabbed a police officer before he himself was shot by other security officers. The London police force, the Metropolitan police, immediately said they were treating the incident as a terrorist attack “until we know otherwise.”
A woman died on the road after being hit by the car.
Three French students were among the injured and one remains in a critical condition. A woman with serious injuries was rescued from the river Thames which flows directly past the Houses of Parliament.
Inside the building, parliamentary business was halted in mid-session and MPs were told they were now in lockdown. Outside, all roads and bridges around the Houses of Parliament were closed off, as was Westminster underground station. The Port of London Authority also closed off a three-kilometre stretch of the river Thames.
Across the river from the Palace of Westminster, the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel which is one of London’s most popular attractions, also came to a stop, with people trapped inside its “pods”. Other tourist attractions, including the Madame Tussauds wax museum, the London Dungeon and the Southbank Centre also closed with visitors kept inside.
Police were called to the scene at 2.40pm after receiving reports of a “firearms incident.”
The area around the Houses of Parliament is always crowded with tourists visiting Big Ben and nearby Westminster Abbey. Witnesses saw a car driving across Westminster Bridge, mowing down pedestrians before crashing into railings.
The former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski posted a video on Twitter showing people lying injured on the bridge. Mr Sikorski, a senior fellow at Harvard Centre for European Studies, said he saw at least five people lying on the ground after they were hit by the car.
Witnesses also reported hearing four gunshots, which sent the crowds scattering in panic. Political journalist George Eaton, one of the press corps permanently based in the Houses of Parliament, said he looked out of a window of the press gallery and saw police shoot a man who charged at officers.
“A large crowd was seen fleeing from the man before he entered the parliamentary estate,” he said. “After several officers evaded him he was swiftly shot by armed police.”
Foreign office minister Tobias Ellwood, a former soldier, tried to resuscitate the stabbed police officer while waiting for an ambulance but he died at the scene.
Dennis Burns, who was just entering parliament for a meeting, said he heard a radio message saying an officer had been stabbed. Police and security rushed outside as he was going in.
“When I got inside I was wondering what the hell was going on and I saw dozens of panicked people running down the street,” he said. “The first stream was around 30 people and the second stream was 70 people. It looked like they were running for their lives.”
An emergency helicopter landed in Parliament Square soon after to attend to the casualties. The London ambulance service confirmed paramedics had treated at least patients on Westminster Bridge. The injured were taken to St Thomas’s Hospital, located on the other bank of the Thames, directly facing the Houses of Parliament. The hospital cancelled all non-urgent cases and other London hospital were also on standby if needed.
Parliamentarians and other staff were instructed to stay in their offices and were later ushered into Westminster Abbey to be interviewed by the police. The 1,000-year-old cathedral became a temporary holding pen for two hours as people waited patiently for permission to leave. In the evening, the Abbey reverted to its primary role as a place of prayer with a service for anyone in the area.
Prime minister Theresa May was taken away to safety. She later chaired a meeting of top security personnel. Police updates were given by assistant commissioner Mark Rowley. By coincidence, Craig Mackey. the acting head of the Metropolitan police was at the Houses of Parliament when the incident began on Wednesday afternoon and may himself become a witness in any inquiry or future trial.
President Donald Trump telephoned the British prime minister to convey his concern and in New York, police ramped up security at British sites across the city, including the British consulate and the British mission to the United Nations
The threat level for international terrorism in the UK was listed at severe. The city was also on alert for the funeral of Martin McGuinness, former IRA commander, due to take place on Thursday.
The attack occurred the day after the UK said it was imposing a US-style ban on large electronic devices in cabin baggage on incoming flights from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
On Tuesday, the day the ban was announced, transport minister Chris Grayling told parliament Britain was facing “a constantly evolving threat from terrorism and must respond accordingly”.
* additional reporting from Associated Press and Agence France-Presse