Five people were killed in Holland after a speeding car crashed through barriers and ploughed into spectators attending a royal parade, in a terrifying attack believed to be targeted at the Dutch royal family.
A black Suzuki Swift, driven by a 38-year-old man, charged at high speed through police barriers and crowds of spectators, missed the royal open-top bus by just metres and crashed into the foot of a memorial column in Apeldoorn, a small town 90km south-east of Amsterdam.
Television footage showed the car, with its roof and bonnet already crumpled from smashing through the crowd, racing past the royal bus in bright sunshine and slamming into the column. Other film showed bodies being hurled into the air and members of the royal family hiding their faces in shock and dismay.
"I think that it has become clear that this happened with premeditation," said the Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.
The driver – a shaven-haired Dutch man with no police record or known political affiliations – was badly hurt in the final crash but he survived. Pictures showed him apparently unconscious in the driver's seat with his face covered in blood.
"The man said that his action was aimed at the royal family," said prosecutor Ludo Goossens. "So far we have no indication that there is any link to terror (activities)."
The driver was "formally suspected of... an attack on members of the royal house and manslaughter or murder", the prosecutor added, and could face life in prison.
The Dutch media quoted neighbours as saying the man had been recently fired from his job and evicted from his home. Witnesses said that his car had been stopped and turned back earlier in the day by police. It remained unclear last night how the driver was able to breach security and charge through barriers, police lines and the crowds and almost reach the royal parade itself.
The fact that the attack happened in a small town on Queen's Day – the annual celebration of Queen Beatrix's birthday and of Dutchness itself – heightened the sense of shock and disbelief in the Netherlands. All other celebrations were immediately cancelled. Queen Beatrix, 71, made a national address in which, visibly upset, she said: "What began as a great day has ended in a terrible tragedy that has shocked us all deeply."
A Dutch journalist, Peter von de Vorst, said: "It was a really nice day. Then you hear a bang. Everyone looks up and you see people indeed flying through the air. [You think] this must be a joke or a strange prank. Then suddenly panic, and you realise that something really terrible has happened."
The Netherlands' reputation for tolerance and open-mindedness has been shaken since the assassination in 2002 of the populist politician, Pym Fortuyn. Arguments over immigration and the alleged threat to Dutch values from fundamentalist Islam have disturbed the once unruffled surface of public life.
All the same, an attack on or near to Queen Beatrix, a much-loved symbol of Dutch pride and unity, is likely to trigger an anguished flurry of national soul-searching. There were rumours earlier this week that Queen Beatrix might be preparing to abdicate as she approached her 71st birthday – the age at which her mother Queen Juliana stepped down.