STOCKHOLM – Swedish police said Saturday that they believe they have captured the man accused of turning a beer truck into a weapon a day earlier by driving it into a crowd of pedestrians in a rampage that left four people dead.
Authorities did not divulge the man’s name but said he is a 39-year-old from Uzbekistan who had been known to security services as “a marginal character” for the past year. Police said that when they first investigated him, they had found no connections to extremism. Authorities did not say when the man had come to Sweden.
The arrest came Friday night when officers apprehended a suspect in the northern Stockholm suburbs who matched the description of a man seen in surveillance footage earlier in the day. Police initially said they were unsure whether the man they had arrested was involved in the attack.
But their confidence grew overnight, and in an early afternoon news conference Saturday, authorities said they were all but certain that they had caught the assailant.
Sweden’s prime minister said Friday that the attack was “an act of terrorism,” though officials have not commented on an exact motive.
Swedish media outlets reported Saturday that there was a homemade explosive device discovered in the mangled wreckage of the truck, which was towed overnight from the upscale shopping district that on Friday afternoon became a scene of carnage.
National Police Chief Dan Eliasson said that “a device that did not belong there was found in the truck.” But officials said it was unclear whether it was a bomb.
Flags across Stockholm flew at half-staff Saturday, and mourners paid respects by leaving flowers at the scene of the attack.
Among them were Crown Princess Victoria and her husband, Prince Daniel. With tears in her eyes, Victoria said she was filled with “sadness and emptiness.” Politicians across the spectrum also visited the scene, and many expressed backing for the prime minister’s handling of the incident.
With the attack, which also injured 15 others, Stockholm joined a growing list of major European cities where vehicles have been turned into weapons over the past year, including Nice, France, Berlin and London.
In the minutes after the rampage, the driver escaped the smoky and blood-streaked scene. Throughout the afternoon and evening, the driver was the subject of an intensive manhunt as helicopters searched from the skies, heavily armed officers were deployed through normally tranquil neighborhoods and security at borders was tightened. For hours, the city’s transit system was shut down and streets in the central district were sealed off.
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said at a Friday evening news conference that the country would not be intimidated, and that the government would do “whatever it takes” for the public to feel safe.
“Terrorists want us to be afraid, to not live our lives normally,” he said. “Terrorists can never defeat Sweden, never.”
Behind the tough words, however, was an acknowledgment from security officials that attacks like Friday’s are nearly impossible to stop.
“There is no way to really prevent this kind of thing,” said Stefan Hector, an official with Sweden’s national police.
Until Friday, Sweden had been spared the sort of mass-casualty attacks that have afflicted other countries across Europe in recent years. The attack was the first major apparent terrorist strike in Stockholm, a peaceful city set among peninsulas and islands near the Baltic Sea.
It underscores a growing vulnerability that Sweden had long ignored, said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism researcher at the Swedish Defense University. “Sweden had been somewhat like an ostrich,” Ranstorp said. “People were reluctant to talk about it and admit there was a problem.”
That has changed recently as the country has become more aware of the threat, he said. Just in the past week, police had conducted training on a scenario much like the one that unfolded in reality Friday.
Previous attacks in Europe have been claimed by the Islamic State terrorist group. Although the group’s involvement in such attacks has often been tenuous at best, authorities in several cases have said they think the attackers were inspired by Islamist extremist propaganda.
The assailant’s rampage in Stockholm apparently began with an idling truck.
Rose-Marie Hertzman, a spokeswoman for the Swedish brewery company Spendrups, said the truck used in the attack was stolen from one of the firm’s drivers about 2:30 p.m. – about a half-hour before the rampage.
“The driver was unloading, and a man came running and took the truck and drove away,” she said.
Minutes later, the force of the truck crashing into the upscale Ahlens City retail hub sparked a fire and sent smoke billowing above one of the city’s premier shopping districts. One witness described seeing a woman with a severed foot and people either running in panic or staying to help amid pools of blood.
Gahangir Sarvari, 56, an Iranian refugee, was about 50 yards from the attack and said he initially thought it was a traffic accident. Then he saw the trail of carnage, which included a young woman whose legs were severed.
“I can never forget when we made eye contact,” he said. “I was screaming at people why they didn’t call the police and screaming at people who were taking photos with their phones. I didn’t know what to do.”
The attack occurred on a mild spring afternoon, when the city’s central district is customarily buzzing with shoppers, office workers and bicyclists. Its effect quickly rippled across the city. Shoppers were locked inside stores after businesses triggered their automatic security systems. Police evacuated Stockholm’s central train station and shut down the subway.
In a sign of the expanding dragnet, Swedish authorities requested limits on traffic flow to better scan vehicles crossing the Oresund Bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark – and the route into the continent with its many open borders under the European Union’s free-movement treaty.
The attack comes just a little over two weeks after a man plowed an SUV into a crowd of pedestrians on a London bridge, then stabbed a police officer at the gates of Parliament. That assailant killed five, including a woman who died Thursday of injuries she received when she was knocked off the bridge and into the River Thames.
Last year, trucks were also used in deadly rampages through crowds at a Berlin Christmas market and along Nice’s waterfront during France’s Bastille Day in July.
As news of the Stockholm attack spread, there were expressions of resolve from across Europe but few concrete ideas for how to stop the wave of deadly assaults.
“We stand in solidarity with the people of #Sweden,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Twitter. “An attack on any of our Member States is an attack on us all.”
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