By Katrin Bennhold and Stephen Castle
LONDON – A knife-wielding assailant driving a sport utility vehicle mowed down panicked pedestrians and stabbed a police officer outside Parliament on Wednesday in a deadly assault, prompting the hasty evacuation of the prime minister and punctuating the threat of terrorism in Europe.
At least five people, including the assailant, were killed and 40 others injured in the confusing swirl of violence, which police said they assumed had been “inspired by international terrorism.” It appeared to be the most serious such assault in London since the deadly subway bombings more than a decade ago.
Throughout a turbulent afternoon, ambulances, emergency vehicles and heavily armed security officers thronged the area outside Parliament, as one of the busiest sections of London was cordoned off and evacuated.
Prime Minister Theresa May was rushed into a vehicle and spirited back to her office. She held a meeting of the government’s emergency committee and issued a statement on Wednesday night from her 10 Downing St. residence denouncing “the sick and depraved terrorist attack on the streets of our Capital this afternoon.”
May also said that “the full details of exactly what happened are still emerging,” but she confirmed that the attack had been carried out by a lone male assailant. As of late Wednesday, his identity had not been released, but Scotland Yard officials said they believed they knew whom he was.
— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) March 22, 2017
The attack unfolded around 2:40 p.m., Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said at a news conference.
Driving a large sport utility vehicle, the assailant slammed into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge near Parliament, killing two people and injuring 40 others, before crashing into a railing. A third person injured on the bridge died at a hospital.
After the crash, the driver left the vehicle and approached Parliament, where he stabbed an armed police officer to death and was fatally shot by the police.
The dead officer was identified as Keith Palmer, 48, a member of the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command with 15 years of experience.
The attack came on the anniversary of suicide bombings in Brussels that killed 32 people, along with three bombers.
It confirmed fears among counterterrorism officials that London, which had largely escaped recent terrorist attacks in Europe, would join cities like Paris, Brussels and Berlin as targets of mass violence.
“Terrorism affects us all, and France knows the pain the British people are enduring today,” President Francois Hollande of France said at a news conference in Villepinte, near Paris.
May, who spoke with Hollande and President Donald Trump, said in her statement that Parliament would meet as normal on Thursday. She vowed to never permit “the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart.”
Londoners will never be cowed by terrorism. pic.twitter.com/LTLhgZ7OLQ
— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) March 22, 2017
Reuben Saunders, an American student at Cambridge University who was visiting Parliament, said he was on his way out of the building when he saw a police officer being attacked by the assailant.
"He was at the gate, I heard screaming," Saunders said, adding that the assailant had two knives or similar weapons. "I saw the man on the ground being repeatedly stabbed, or pummeled,"
"There was another policeman standing by," he added. "I thought he should have shot, but maybe he was unarmed."
Saunders said that two or three other police officers arrived and, at that point, he retreated. "There were two or three gunshots," he said.
Corinne Desray, a teacher who was outside Parliament with 39 teenage students on a three-day school trip from northern France, said they heard three shots. "My colleague saw bodies lying on the floor and someone said a policeman has been knived," she said. "I told the kids to leave quickly. We're heading back to the bus."
Kirsten Hurrell, 70, who owns a newsstand opposite the clock tower known as Big Ben, said she saw a car swerve across a bicycle lane and into a fence around Parliament. She saw a body lying on the ground and called emergency services. "At first I thought it was an accident but then I was told the car had already mowed down quite a number of people on Westminster Bridge," she said, adding: "Now that it is a terrorist incident, it is a bit more daunting."
Andrew Bone, executive director of the Responsible Jewellery Council, an industry standards group, was on a bus heading toward Victoria Station when it was stopped at the edge of Parliament Square. Seeing the commotion, he at first assumed that an action movie was being shot, but quickly discerned the gravity of the situation as the bus was evacuated and he saw the vehicle on the bridge, which had crashed a railing, the air ambulance.
"We had a front-row seat as the first responders arrived," Bone said. "I am of the generation who remembers IRA bombs in London during The Troubles," he said, referring to the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. "We are not indifferent, but police have reacted with calm. I saw no panic."
Martin Vickers, a member of the House of Commons, was in a passageway in Parliament when he heard loud noises. He thought a motorcycle was backfiring. But as word spread that shots had been fired, he and dozens of other people were ushered onto the Thames embankment, next to Big Ben. There, he saw the car that had been driven into the railings, and saw wounded pedestrians.
Vickers, dressed only in a suit and no overcoat, was waiting outside the police cordon to get back to his office. "My keys are in there and without them I can't go home."
Britain has not suffered a large-scale terrorist attack since July 7, 2005, when bomb attacks on subway trains and on a bus killed more than 50 people. Political violence is relatively rare in Britain, where gun ownership is seriously restricted.