BARCELONA (Agencies) – Spanish police hunting for a suspect after the Barcelona van attack that killed 13 people said yesterday they could not rule out that he had slipped over the border into France.
Spanish police said security operations were under way in Catalonia and on the French border as they try to find Moroccan-born Younes Abouyaaqoub, 22, who they believe is the only one of 12 suspects still at large.
Others have been arrested, shot by police or killed in an explosion at a house in Catalonia a day before Thursday’s van attack on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas.
“We don’t have any specific information on this but it cannot be ruled out,” Catalan police chief Josep Lluis Trapero told a news conference in Barcelona when asked if Mr Abouyaaqoub could have crossed into France.
Spanish media have said Mr Abouyaaqoub was suspected of being the driver, who fled after the attack. Mr Trapero said he could not confirm who was driving, but said investigators believed only one person was in the van.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, in which a van travelling at high-speed drove through crowds of tourists and local people walking along Las Ramblas, leaving a trail of dead and 120 injured from 34 countries.
Hours later, police shot dead five men wearing fake explosive belts in the Catalan seaside resort of Cambrils after they rammed holidaymakers with a car and stabbed others, killing one woman.
Mr Abouyaaqoub’s mother Hannou Ghanimi, speaking to reporters, urged her son to give himself up to police, saying she preferred him being in prison to being dead.
Four people have been arrested so far in connection with the attacks – three Moroccans and a citizen of Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla.
The terror cell was reportedly made up of at least 12 men, some of them teenagers. Police also confirmed that an imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, was among the suspects.
Investigators are seeking to unravel the role of the imam, who is believed to have radicalised many of the youths in a small town called Ripoll at the foot of the Pyrenees.
Several of the suspects – including Mr Abouyaaqoub – grew up or lived in the town of about 10,000 residents.
On Saturday, police raided the imam’s apartment in Ripoll, his flatmate, who would only identify himself as Nourddem, said.
Investigators were looking for DNA traces to check if he had been blown up in an explosion at a house in Alcanar, about 200km south of Barcelona, where more than 100 butane gas cylinders were found along with, according to Spanish media, traces of TATP, or triacetone triperoxide. TATP is a highly volatile explosive nicknamed “the mother of Satan” that can be made with easily obtainable household chemicals.
Mr Trapero said investigators have identified two people from remains found in the house.
The imam was reportedly known to police, with Spanish media saying he had spent time in prison.
El Pais and El Mundo, quoting anti-terror forces, said the imam had met prisoners linked to the Al-Qaeda-inspired bombing of Madrid trains that killed 191 people in March 2004.
Moha, 46, who also lives in Ripoll, said the imam was initially part of the only mosque in town, but “later left and [set up] his own prayer hall in a garage”. “There has been a change in the community since he arrived more than two years ago,” said Moha.
In the Moroccan town of M’rirt, relatives of Mr Abouyaaqoub also accused the imam of radicalising the young man, as well as his brother Houssein.
“Over the last two years, Younes and Houssein began to radicalise under the influence of this imam,” their grandfather said.
A police document published by Spanish media said two alleged members of the group, Youssef Aallaa and Mohamed Hichamy, now both believed dead, had travelled to Zurich in December 2016.
Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa joined Catalan leaders yesterday for a service in memory of the victims of the attack at Barcelona’s towering Sagrada Familia church.