Spain attacks: Spanish and Catalan governments disagree over whether terror cell is still at large

Meanwhile Catalan police are still searching for 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub

Police officers patrol La Rambla near the scene of Thursday’s terrorist attack
Police officers patrol La Rambla near the scene of Thursday’s terrorist attack

A dispute has broken out between the Spanish government and the regional authorities in Catalonia over the investigation into the terror cell thought to have carried out the Barcelona van attack this week.

Spain’s interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said at a news conference on Saturday that the alleged cell responsible for the attacks had been “dismantled” and its members all arrested – but his local counterpart appeared to contradict him, suggesting more arrests could follow.

It comes as police continue to search for 22-year-old Moroccan national Younes Abouyaaqoub, who has become the focus of the investigation into the van attack after five of his alleged co-conspirators were shot dead by police on Friday.

“The cell has been fully dismantled in Barcelona, after examining the people who died, the people who were arrested and carrying out identity checks,” Mr Zodio told a news conference on Saturday.

He also said the country would not raise its terror threat level the maximum on the scale – though he would send “special protection” to potential terror targets, including tourist hotspots.

But Joaquim Forn, the interior minister for the Catalan government, which crucially commands the Catalan police force leading the investigation, Mossos d’Esquadra, appeared to suggest there were more arrests to be made.

“We can’t say the investigation is finished until we locate or detain all those who we think form part of this terror cell,” he said at a separate briefing.

The Spanish media now says that on-the-run Abouyaaqoub is likely to have been the driver of the van that killed 13 and injured over 100 on Thursday. Moussa Oukabir, 17, who was previously identified as the driver, is thought to be among five men shot by police on Friday after a later attack in Cambrils, an hour and a half drive west of Barcelona, on Friday. Seven victims were injured in that attack, one of whom later died.

Oukabir reportedly died along with Said Aallaa, 19, and Mohamed Hychami, 24, who were part of the group that mounted the attack in Cambrils that left one woman dead and six people injured.

Four men, aged 21, 27, 28 and 34, who were arrested in connection with the attacks remain in custody. Three are Moroccan and one Spanish. Police say none of those arrested was previously known to the security services for terror-related reasons; Oukabir’s older brother, Driss Oukabir, is reported by local media to be one of those detained.

Isis claimed responsibility for both attacks in a statement released on Saturday that attributed the atrocities to “covert units” of “Islamic State soldiers”. The group’s statement however appeared to be riddled with fictions, including a reference to an extra attack on a bar using “light weapons” that did not take place. The statement referred to the victims as Jews and “Crusaders” – a term used to describe Christians and citizens of countries in the US-led coalition against Isis.

There was confusion on Saturday after Spanish media reported that a seven-year-old British-Australian boy caught up in the Barcelona attack had been found safe and well in the hospital. Catalan police later denied these reports, stating: “Neither [are] we were searching [for], nor we have found any lost child in the Barcelona attack. All the victims and injured have been located.”

La Rambla, where the first attack took place, is now the site of extensive floral tributes and messages of solidarity from visitors from around the world, with tourists returning to the tree-lined boulevard and local business owners making a concerted effort to go back to work after the dark events of this week.

Spain’s interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido

Spanish newspaper El Pais says that police believe that explosions reported in the nearby down of Alcanar, two hours drive west of Barcelona, on Wednesday, may have been accidental blast at a bomb-making factory – depriving the alleged terror cell of material.

After the loss of their explosive material the terrorists defaulted to using more low tech methods – the van – to carry out the attack, it was reported.

Investigators have floated the idea that the cell was building a large scale truck bomb built from gas canisters, and could have planned to carry out multiple attacks at the same time. The explosion on Wednesday ahead of the attack was at the time reported in local media as a gas explosion.

A second van found in the town of Vic in Catalonia, an hour’s drive north of Barcelona, is also being investigated by police amid reports that the attackers had tried to hire a lorry, which was foiled when the driver failed to produce the necessary permit.

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