MELBOURNE – At least 14 people were injured, several critically, after a car drove into a crowd in Melbourne’s central business district on Thursday (Dec 21) in what the police called a “deliberate act”, although they said there was no evidence of a terror link “at this time”.
The white Suzuki SUV “collided with a number of pedestrians” on the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth streets – an area popular with tourists – just before 5pm local time (2pm Singapore time). Police have arrested the driver as well as a second man, Australian media reported.
Police have identified the man who drove the car into pedestrians as a 32-year-old Australian citizen of Afghan descent who is under treatment for mental illness.
The other man, a 24-year-old who was arrested near the scene, was seen filming the incident. He was found with a bag containing knives.
At a press conference earlier, Victoria Police commander Russell Barrett said the attack appeared to have been deliberate.
“We believe, based on what we’ve seen, it is deliberate act,” he said. “It is too early in the investigation to discuss motivation.”
Police arrested two men but they have not been charged, he added.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said his “thoughts and prayers” were with those injured in the incident as well as those who offered to help, Sky news reported.
Police said the injured included a young child with a head injury who was rushed to Royal Children’s Hospital in a serious condition.
Images from the scene show a number of people lying on the ground close to a large white vehicle. Hundreds of people were milling around the crash scene, with police quelling a group in the crowd calling out the incident as a terrorist attack.
Dozens of police cars, fire trucks and ambulances also converged on the site.
An eyewitness identified only as Sue from Walker’s Doughnuts in Elizabeth Street told radio station 3AW that she heard screams before she saw “people flying everywhere”.
“We could hear this noise, as we looked left, we saw this white car, it just mowed everybody down,” she said.
“People are flying everywhere. We heard thump, thump. People are running everywhere.”
The incident occurred shortly before the evening rush hour in Melbourne, and in a week when major cities in Australia have been packed with holiday shoppers.
One distressed woman carrying Christmas presents and wrapping paper could be seen crying as police escorted her into an unmarked police car, the Herald said.
Sections of the city’s public transport system were in lockdown, with Metro Trains urging commuters to avoid Flinders Street.
The incident echoes a similar case – unrelated to terrorism – in Melbourne in January, when four people were killed and more than 20 injured. The driver, whose case is still being heard in court, had been pursued by police prior to the rampage after he allegedly stabbed his brother.
Police said the January incident was not terror-related, although it led to Melbourne and other cities ramping up security measures in pedestrian areas.
That incident followed a series of terror-related attacks in European cities – London, Paris, Nice, Barcelona and Berlin – where vehicles were used to mow down pedestrians.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Thursday federal and state police as well as security agencies were working together to secure the scene in Melbourne and investigate the “shocking incident”, Reuters reported.
“Our thoughts & prayers are with the victims & the emergency & health workers who are treating them,” Turnbull said in a post on his official Twitter account.
Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, writing on his official Twitter account, called it a “horrible incident”.