An American woman in her 60s has been killed after being repeatedly stabbed in the back by a knifeman in a central London rampage as police rowed back on terrorism as a potential motive and said the attack was probably triggered by mental health issues.
She was helped by a family of Spanish tourists as she lay slumped against railings after being targeted by the knifeman, who witnesses said did not say a word as he also stabbed a man in his 40s in the chest and a woman in her 20s in the arm.
A 19-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder, having received treatment in hospital under armed guard after a Taser was discharged as he was detained by police shortly after 10.30pm.
The suspect is a Norwegian national of Somalian origin, but no evidence has been found of radicalisation, Scotland Yard’s head of counter-terrorism Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said.
Police had earlier said they were keeping an open mind over the motive behind the attack – which took place in a popular central London tourist area close to the scene of the July 7 London bus bombing in 2005 – and said terrorism was “one line of inquiry that we should explore”.
But Mr Rowley said that so far no evidence has been found of radicalisation that would suggest the man in custody was “in any way motivated by terrorism”.
Mr Rowley said specialist detectives from murder and terrorism teams had been working on the case throughout the night.
Metropolitan Police: No evidence Russell Square suspect was radicalisedPlay!01:20
He added: “Whilst the investigation is not yet complete, all of the work we have done so far increasingly points to this tragic incident as having been triggered by mental health issues.
“At this time, we believe this was a spontaneous attack and that the victims were selected at random.”
It was also revealed in the statement on Thursday afternoon that the woman killed in the attack was American. Those injured are Australian, American, Israeli and British.
The suspect, whose identity has not been released, was arrested after officers fired a Taser. No other shots were fired.
After receiving treatment at hospital under guard, he remains in custody at south London police station.
Police were called to Russell Square, a popular tourist area near the British Museum in Bloomsbury and the scene of one of the London 7/7 bombings, shortly after 10.30pm to reports of a man armed with a knife assaulting people.
Among the first to raise the alarm was a cyclist on his way home from work, who phoned police after being flagged down by a Spanish family who stopped to help the victims.
The 40-year-old Brazilian witness said he was told the attacker had been making “sweeping, stabbing motions” as he “slashed out” with a blade, but “didn’t say anything”.
“They said that when he stabbed the people he didn’t shout or scream anything”, he added.
Witnesses describe scene following Russell Square stabbingPlay!01:47
The man, who gave his name only as Fernando, said: “I saw a white woman slumped against the railings with injuries and she was being helped by a young Spanish girl who looked around 16 years old.
“She had been stabbed in the back several times, and I called 999. An Englishman, in his mid 40s, had been stabbed in the ribs under his left armpit.
“He said ‘I’m okay, I’m okay please help the woman’ but I don’t think he realised he was so seriously injured. I ran across the street to a bar to call for help.
“The attacker was apparently stabbing and waving his knife at random – making a lunge in towards people’s legs. The victim wasn’t with anyone, she was on her own.
“The attacker… wasn’t shouting anything and after he stabbed them he ran off down the street towards Russell Street Tube station.”
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe vowed to “protect our capital and those who live, work and visit our city” after the stabbings, adding: “A normal night out in our busy capital has ended in horrific circumstances.”
Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, called for the public to remain “calm and vigilant” and said his “heart goes out to the victims of the incident in Russell Square and their loved ones” as he cut short a Mediterranean family holiday to return to the capital.
Paramedics had given the woman “extensive treatment” at the scene, but she could not be saved.
The five injured people were all taken to hospital for treatment, the London Ambulance Service said.
Three people were discharged on Thursday morning, as the other two remained in hospital. Their are injuries are said to not be life-threatening.
Witnesses described seeing armed police flood the area in the wake of the attack and officers established a large cordon to seal off the square where a forensics tent was later seen. The cordon had been largely lifted by Thursday morning.
More from police chief: ‘We should be proud of British tradition of using minimum necessary force’
“Our firearms officers bravely rushed to that scene with very little information. They would not have known if this was an act of terrorism or the random attack we now know it be.
“They detained an armed and dangerous man – and resolved it using the minimum necessary force – no shots were fired.
“We should be proud of them and the British tradition of using the minimum necessary force.
“There will have been a large number of people in that area at the time – they may have vital information to help our murder investigation – I would ask them to contact us.
“This attack will cause concern. So as a precautionary measure we have increased the number of officers out on the streets today and that will continue for as long as we need it to.
“I want everyone who is out and about in London today – our residents; businesses or visitors – to know that the Met is totally committed to doing everything we can do to protect you.”
Police say attack was ‘spontaneous’ rather than motivated by terrorism
Speaking outside New Scotland Yard, Mr Rowley said the focus of the investigation had now “narrowed” and it was now believed the attack had been “spontaneous” and “random” rather than motivated by terrorism, reports Crime Correspondent Martin Evans.
Mr Rowley revealed that the attacker was a Norwegian of Somali origin, but said there were no signs of any radicalisation in his past.
He also revealed that the dead woman was an American, while the injured came from Australia, the United States, Israel and Britain.
Mr Rowley said the Met’s assessment of the motive for the attack had been based on the results of five main aieas of investigation:
An interview with the suspect
Speaking to his family
Interviews with eye witnesses
A full intelligence review with the security services.
He said: “All the work we have done so far increasingly points to this tragic incident having been motivated by mental health issues.”
Update from Met Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley
The Metropolitan Police are now rowing back on terrorism as a potential motive and are suggesting it was a “random and spontaneous” attack.
Speaking outside Scotland Yard, Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley revealed:
The suspect is a Norwegian national of Somali origin
There is nothing to suggest he has been radicalised
Mental health issues are the likely motivation
The dead woman was an American citizen. Other victims are American, Australian, Israeli and British
Police have searched addresses in North London and South London
Woman killed in attack was reportedly American citizen
The woman who died in the Russell Square knife attack was an American citizen, according to unconfirmed reports. Among the injured were British, Israeli and Australian nationals.
Witness heard police scream ‘put it down, put it down’
Ellie Cattle, from Hull, East Yorkshire, who was celebrating her 21st birthday, witnessed events unfold from her hotel window.
“I could see police – three police vans – coming down the road, and all I heard was them shouting ‘Put it down, put it down’,” Ms Cattle said.
“They sounded urgent for him to put it down. Then I heard what sounded like a gunshot, but it must have been the Taser. After that they just stopped shouting.”
Jeremy Corbyn urges ‘no one to speculate on the reasons’ for attack
In a speech in Dagenham, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “We should express our sympathies to the family of the poor woman who was stabbed to death last night in Russell Square and thank the police for the action they took very quickly to make the area safe. This is an appalling event that happened.
“I would urge no one to speculate on the reasons or the causes for it, but to be grateful that we have efficient emergency services that were able to bring about some safety for that area at the present time.”
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