A man with his face painted like the Joker character in Batman went on a stabbing spree in a children's crèche in Belgium yesterday, killing two toddlers and a woman and slashing 10 infants and two other adults before riding off on a bicycle.
"He started stabbing every baby in sight as well the carers who tried to protect them," said Theo Janssens, the head of the local social services department, who was the first person to arrive at the scene.
"He then went on to a second room at the back of the crèche where the infants are and continued to stab them with his knife. Everyone was screaming but he was silent. There was blood everywhere, staff and the babies were crying and crumbled up, wounded, against the walls. It was the most horrifying sight you can imagine. There were bloodstained babies and staff workers everywhere."
The tall and skinny ginger-haired man had blackened his eyebrows and disguised himself with white face-paint. He wore a bulletproof jacket when he arrived at Fabeltjes or "Fairytales" crèche in a residential part of Dendermonde, north-west of Brussels.
He cycled to the crèche and entered the unguarded premises on the pretext that he had a question for the receptionist but he quickly marched towards the first toddlers' room.
The attacks, carried out with an eight-inch blade, killed two children aged under three and a female carer. At least one member of staff tried but failed to disarm the man.
Police said the attacker, believed to be a 20-year-old local man with no connection to the crèche, cycled around for more than an hour in the rain before two police officers caught him in a supermarket three miles away. They had been sent out to nearby villages as part of a massive manhunt. "He struggled very briefly but appeared to be in a complete trance," said Paul Putteman, the Dendermonde police chief.
"He stared straight ahead, just as if he was in his own world. He also refused to respond when we began questioning him."
Residents said the suspect was a local man with a history of mental illness. Mr Putteman would not reveal the identity of the alleged killer and would not confirm reports that he had escaped from a psychiatric ward in Sint Blasius, a nearby hospital.
"It is very possible that he may have been taking drugs and he did carry another weapon of attack though no firearm, so we are extremely relieved and pleased that we caught him so soon so that he could not do more damage," he said.
Last night, the man was being held in custody for questioning and he is due to appear before a magistrate today to be indicted over the attack.
Ten infants and two carers with stab wounds were airlifted to six hospitals. Medical staff said they were all in a serious condition.
Dr Ignace Demeyer, the head of emergency services at Our Lady Hospital in the nearby town of Aalst, said: "This was a particularly violent attack. All the kids had multiple stab wounds on their legs, arms and all over their bodies."
Nine of the 21 children at the crèche at the time were unharmed, he said.
Police had to show distraught parents photographs of children taken to the hospital to identify them.
The apparently random stabbings sparked panic and outrage throughout the town and left Belgium in shock.
The Belgian Justice Minister, Stefaan De Clerck, said: "We feel very deeply for the parents and families of these children. It is huge shock for Dendermonde and for Belgium, we have never had anything like this happen in our country. Clearly we have to investigate this and also question how someone could become so deranged and abnormal."
He resisted calls to review security at nurseries and schools. "Life has to continue as usual," he said.
A team of psychologists and social workers were treating the crèche's other carers, as well as the infants and their families, for shock.
Residents of Sint Gillis, a district of just 12,000 inhabitants, struggled to comprehend that the bloody drama had taken place on their doorstep.
They huddled in the cold around the cordoned-off January 5 Street, a narrow, dark street of brown-brick townhouses where the crèche and an adjoining local school are located.
"This is a small place where everyone knows one another by name, we say hello to the children and wave as they are taken to the crèche by their parents," said Marie, one of the district's retired residents.
Damien Vernon, 43, an Irish man who has been living in Dendermonde for five years, told the BBC: "It's just a sad day here, we're a small town and the crime figures are low here, we're just in shock."
Ijsel, a mother who had planned to enrol her child at the same crèche, clutched a bunch of flowers and cried as she stared at the street.
"This is something that you see in films, not in real life, not here."
Not the first: Belgium’s recent history is scarred by child killers
*The stabbing rampage in Dendermonde is the latest in a series of horrific child killings in Belgium in the past decade and a half.
Marc Dutroux became Europe's most notorious child serial killer in the 1990s when he kidnapped and sexually abused six girls in his cellar. He murdered two, while another two were found starved to death in a case that triggered a nationwide outcry over police and judicial blunders in the investigation. Police officers had failed to discover the first two victims during a search of Dutroux's house in 1995 despite obvious clues, and he later escaped police custody. He was sentenced in 2004 to life.
In June 2006, memories of the Dutroux murders were revived when two Belgian girls disappeared during a music festival in the eastern city of Liege.
The bodies of Stacy Lemmens, seven, and Nathalie Mahy, 10, were found three weeks later, dumped in a sewer by a railway line. Their killer, Abdallah Ait-Oud, was sentenced to life last year.
He had been released from a mental hospital six months before the murders, and had a history of raping minors.
Last year, the nation was shaken by another horrific case when it emerged that a mother had slit the throats of her five children. Genevieve Lhermitte, 42, from Nivelles, killed her four daughters and son, aged between three and 14, one by one, before attempting to commit suicide. She had been suffering depression for a number of years. She was tried and found guilty last month.Reuse content