Police have confirmed they are investigating a terror attack in London after a van ploughed into people near a north London mosque, leaving one person dead and injuring eight others.
A 48-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder, and two of those hit by the van were said to be “very seriously injured”.
The prime minister, Theresa May, was woken to be told of the early morning incident at Finsbury Park and has confirmed that counter-terrorism command is leading an active inquiry.
Deputy assistant commissioner Neil Basu, the senior national coordinator for counter-terrorism, said: “The attack unfolded whilst a man was receiving first aid from the public at the scene, sadly, he has died. Any causative link between his death and the attack will form part of our investigation. It is too early to state if his death was as a result of the attack.
“No matter what the motivation proves to be, and we are keeping an open mind, this is being treated as a terrorist attack and the counter-terrorism command is investigating.
“This was an attack on London and all Londoners and we should all stand together against extremists whatever their cause.”
Witnesses said the man who subsequently died had been taken ill and a small crowd had gathered around him to help. The van, they said, ploughed into those trying to assist him.
The people struck were all Muslim, Basu said. Witnesses said some of them were wearing clothing that visually identified as such.
A witness said the driver had shouted “I want to kill all Muslims” before onlookers pinned him to the ground.
Police confirmed reports that members of the public had detained the driver, who was said to have gestured to onlookers after he was handed over to officers.
In an early morning statement, May said police were treating the van incident as a potential terrorist attack. She said: “I will chair an emergency meeting later this morning. All my thoughts are with the victims, their families and the emergency services on the scene.”
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, denounced the incident as “a horrific terrorist attack on innocent people in Finsbury Park. We don’t yet know the full details, but this was clearly a deliberate attack on innocent Londoners, many of whom were finishing prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.
“While this appears to be an attack on a particular community, like the terrible attacks in Manchester, Westminster and London Bridge it is also an assault on all our shared values of tolerance, freedom and respect.”
Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police commissioner, said: “London is a city of many faiths and many nationalities. An attack on one community is an attack on all of us.
“Terrorists will not succeed in their attempts to divide us and make us live in fear. Extra officers are on duty in the area to help reassure the local community. They will be there for as long as they are needed.”
The attack took place outside the Muslim Welfare House, a few hundred metres away from Finsbury Park mosque. It was the third recent incident in London in which a vehicle has been used to kill, and Muslims who gathered in the area talked of fears of being targeted in hate attacks.
A police statement said: “Officers attended alongside other emergency services and found and tended to a number of casualties. One man was pronounced dead at the scene. Officers are in the process of informing next of kin. A postmortem examination will be scheduled due course. Eight people injured were taken to three separate hospitals, two people were treated at the scene for minor injuries.
“At this stage there are no reports of any persons having suffered any knife injuries. The driver of the van – a man aged 48 – was found detained by members of public at the scene and then arrested by police in connection with the incident. He has been taken to hospital as a precaution, and will be taken into custody once discharged. He will also be subject of a mental health assessment in due course.”
The London ambulance service said a “number of resources have been sent to the scene in Seven Sisters Road”. Kevin Bate, its deputy director of operations, said: “We have sent a number of ambulance crews, advance paramedics and specialist responses teams to the scene. An advance trauma team from London’s air ambulance has also been dispatched by car.”
The Muslim Council of Britain initially said worshippers were among the casualties. A tweet from the MCB said: “We have been informed that a van has run over worshippers as they left #finsburyparkmosque.”
The council later released a statement saying it was aware people were describing the incident as a terror attack.
Harun Khan, its secretary general, said: “During the night, ordinary British citizens were set upon while they were going about their lives, completing their night worship. My prayers are with the victims and their families.”
Images and video posted to Twitter showed police vehicles blocking the street and a cordon in place. More than a dozen emergency vehicles could be seen near the UKCG Help Centre at the junction of Seven Sisters Road and the A503 Tollington Road.
One witness, who wanted to be identified as Abdulrahman, which is not his real name, said he and his friends had stopped to help an elderly man who was lying on the ground at about 12.20am on Monday.
“In seconds this terrible thing happened,”’ he told the Press Association. “Literally within a minute, a van with speed turned to where we were and ran over the man who was laying on the floor and the people around him, around eight people or 10 people got injured, some of them seriously. Thank God I’m safe, but my friends got injured.
“I managed to get the driver of the van when he came out of his van. He wanted to run away and was saying ‘I want to kill all Muslims’. So he came back to the main road and I managed to get him to the ground, and me and some other guys managed to hold him until the police arrived, for about 20 minutes I think, until the police arrived.
“People were very upset, people were shouting, people were saying ‘where’s the police, where’s the ambulance?’ People were saying ‘keep him on the ground’. People were asking questions, saying ‘why did you do this?’ People were laying down on the floor.”
Abdulrahman claimed the driver said “kill me” as he held his head on the ground.
“I said, ‘Tell me why did you try driving to kill innocent people?’ When he went into the [police] van he made gestures, he was laughing. He deliberately did this. He caused this incident.”
One resident told the Press Association he jumped out of the way as the van struck pedestrians. The man, who did not want to be named, said: “The gentleman went straight down this road, people were just conversing, talking, just doing what we’re doing.
“And he just came into all of us. There was a lot of people. We got told to move straight away. I was shocked, shocked, shocked. There were bodies around me. Thank God I just moved to the side, I just jumped.”
Boubou Sougou, 23, saw the van mount the pavement and mow people down while travelling at speed. “It was deliberate, it was not an accident,” he said.
Another witness, Abdikadar Warfa, said he and and others caught hold of the van driver, who threw kicks and punches as he tried to escape. He said: “He tried to run away, he tried to escape. Some people were hitting him. He was fighting to run away.
“I heard the sound of the van crashing. One person was under the van,
some were run over. My friend said he had to lift the van. I was busy with a man who tried to escape. My friend said he said some words, but I didn’t hear it.”
One woman who lives opposite the scene told the BBC: “From the window I started hearing a lot of yelling and screeching, a lot of chaos outside. Everybody was shouting ‘a van’s hit people, a van’s hit people’.”
The incident happened in the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North constituency. He released a statement on Twitter expressing his shock:
I'm totally shocked at the incident at Finsbury Park tonight. pic.twitter.com/1ffKijNs73
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) June 19, 2017
The Finsbury Park attack comes after two attacks in London in which pedestrians were struck by vehicles. The first was in Westminster in March and and the second was a fortnight ago in London Bridge.
It took place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and worshippers were out on the streets in the Finsbury Park area, which is home to two mosques.
Among Britain’s Muslim communities there are fears they are being targeted for Islamophobic hate crimes and that the authorities do not take such incidents seriously enough.
A spike in hate crimes was reported after the London Bridge attack just over a fortnight ago. Security officials and senior police officers are in private acutely aware of the need to protect Muslim communities from any backlash. Extremists on the far right and those following jihadist ideology want to drive a wedge between British Muslims and other communities.