Barcelona van attack suspect may have crossed into France

BARCELONA, Spain, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Spanish police hunting for a suspect after the Barcelona van attack that killed 13 people said on Sunday 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.

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Van crashes into crowd in Barcelona
People react as they leave a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing two persons and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least two people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Policemen walk on the Rambla after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing two persons and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least two people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Policemen and medical staff members stand in the entrance of a mall after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing two persons and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least two people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)
An elderly woman accompanied by young people reacts after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing two persons and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least two people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman gestures as she is escorted out by Spanish policemen outside a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 80 on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least 13 people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack'. / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish policemen accompany people leaving the cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 50 on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least 13 people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 17: Paramedics are seen near to the scene of a terrorist attack in the Las Ramblas area on August 17, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. Officials say 13 people are confirmed dead and at least 50 injured after a van plowed into people in the Las Ramblas area of the city this afternoon. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 17: Police officers take security measures at the area after a van plowed into the crowd, injuring several people in Barcelona, Spain on August 17, 2017. (Photo by Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A woman cries as she and a man are escorted by Spanish policemen outside a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing 13 persons and injuring over 80 on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least 13 people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack'. / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY: People attend to injured persons at the scene after a van crashed into pedestrians near the Las Ramblas avenue in central Barcelona, Spain August 17, 2017. REUTERS/Giselle Loots SPAIN OUT. MANDATORY CREDIT.
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY: People attend to injured persons at the scene after a van crashed into pedestrians near the Las Ramblas avenue in central Barcelona, Spain August 17, 2017. REUTERS/Giselle Loots SPAIN OUT. MANDATORY CREDIT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY: A dead person is seen at the scene after a van crashed into pedestrians near the Las Ramblas avenue in central Barcelona, Spain August 17, 2017. REUTERS/Giselle Loots MANDATORY CREDIT. SPAIN OUT.
Two young girls run to leave a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing two persons and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. A driver deliberately rammed a van into a crowd on Barcelona's most popular street on August 17, 2017 killing at least two people before fleeing to a nearby bar, police said. Officers in Spain's second-largest city said the ramming on Las Ramblas was a 'terrorist attack' and a police source said one suspect had left the scene and was 'holed up in a bar'. The police source said they were hunting for a total of two suspects. / AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman cries as she phones after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing one person and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Pau Barrena (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - People leave a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, killing one person and injuring several others on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Pau Barrena (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
A still image from video shows a police officer gesturing while walking across a road, after a van crashed into people in the centre of Barcelona, Spain, August 17, 2017. REUTERS TV via REUTERS
A still image from video shows a police officer ushering people away on a street, after a van crashed into people in the centre of Barcelona, Spain, August 17, 2017. REUTERS TV via REUTERS
A still image from video shows a police cordon on a street in Barcelona, Spain following a van crash August 17, 2017. REUTERS TV via REUTERS
Abandoned air balloons of a street vendor tied to a chair fly at the empty Plaza de Catalunya after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 17: People move away from the area after a van plowed into the crowd, injuring several people in Barcelona, Spain on August 17, 2017. (Photo by Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A person is stretched out of a mall by medical staff members in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Policemen stand next to vehicles in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A policemen stand as he blocks the street to a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA (Photo credit should read PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters stands outside an evacuated mall after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Medical staff members and policemen stand in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A policeman stands next to an ambulance after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Plain-clothes policemen phone as they walk past police cars in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A policemen and a medical staff member stand past police cars and an ambulance in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A person is stretched out of a mall by medical staff members in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Armed policecen stand in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
An armed policeman stands behind a tree in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Armed policemen arrive in a cordoned off area after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 17: A police stands as he blocks the traffic after a van plowed into the crowd, injuring several people in Barcelona, Spain on August 17, 2017. (Photo by Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Pigeons gather on the empty Plaza de Catalunya after a van ploughed into the crowd, injuring several persons on the Rambla in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. Police in Barcelona said they were dealing with a 'terrorist attack' after a vehicle ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians on the city's famous Las Ramblas boulevard on August 17, 2017. Police were clearing the area after the incident, which has left a number of people injured. / AFP PHOTO / Josep LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)
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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 Las Ramblas, Barcelona's most famous boulevard.

"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 Abouyaaqoub could have crossed into France.

Spanish media have said Abouyaaqoub was suspected of being the driver, who fled after the attack. Trapero said he could not confirm who was driving, but said investigators believed only one person was in the van.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, in which a van traveling 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.

A police source in France told Reuters on Friday that police there had been looking for the driver of a white Renault Kangoo van that may be connected to the attacks. French media said on Saturday the vehicle had been found near Barcelona.

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.

The attacks were the deadliest in Spain for more than a decade. In little more than a year, militants have used vehicles as weapons to kill nearly 130 people in France, Germany, Britain, Sweden and Spain.

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.

 

PYRENEAN CONNECTION

One focus of the investigation is on Ripoll, a quiet town set beneath the Pyrenees mountain range and ringed by forested hills, which was the home of a number of the youths, most of Moroccan nationality, who are suspected of involvement. Three of those killed in Cambrils were aged between 17 and 24.

A common thread running through the young men's lives was a local imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, whose landlord said he left Ripoll two days before the attack.

Spanish media have depicted Es Satty as being a possible ring-leader who indoctrinated the group.

Papers bearing what appeared to be French names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses were seen by reporters in Es Satty's apartment in Ripoll after it was searched by police.

A police document published by Spanish media said two alleged members of the group, Youssef Aallaa and Mohamed Hichamy, now both believed dead, had traveled to Zurich in December 2016.

Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger said Swiss police confirmed that at least one of the Barcelona suspects had been in Zurich in December 2016, although it said it was not yet possible to say if the suspects had any connections to Switzerland. An investigation of the visit was under way, it said.

Trapero said investigators have identified two people from remains found in a house razed in an explosion on Wednesday in Alcanar, southwest of Barcelona, that police believe the suspects were using as a base.

Police believe the explosion foiled the cell's plans to carry out one or more large-scale bombings in Barcelona and led them to rush to stage attacks with vehicles.

More than 100 butane gas cylinders were found at the house, and also, according to Spanish media, traces of TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, a highly volatile explosive nicknamed "the mother of Satan" that can be made with easily obtainable household chemicals.

Of the 14 dead in the two attacks, five are Spanish, two are Italians, two are Portuguese, one Belgian, one Canadian and one a U.S. citizen, emergency services and authorities from those countries have confirmed so far.

Spain's King Felipe and Queen Letizia, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa joined Catalan leaders on Sunday for a service in memory of the victims of the attack at Barcelona's towering Sagrada Familia church, one of the city's landmarks designed by architect Antoni Gaudi.

Spain has kept its security alert level at four, one notch below the maximum level that would indicate another attack was imminent, but said it would reinforce security in crowded areas and tourist hotspots.

(Additional reporting by Sarah White, Julien Toyer, Adrian Croft, Rodrigo de Miguel, Alba Asenjo and John Miller in Zurich; Writing by Adrian Croft; Editing by Julien Toyer and Janet Lawrence)

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