OTTAWA: A gunman whose name was on a terror watch list killed a soldier and attempted to storm Canada’s parliament on Wednesday (Oct 22) before being gunned down in turn by the assembly’s sergeant-at-arms.
The attacker, identified in the Canadian media as 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was considered a “high risk” suspect and had seen his passport seized to prevent him fighting abroad. Instead, he shot and killed a Canadian soldier who was mounting a ceremonial guard at a war memorial in downtown Ottawa before storming into the nearby parliament building.
The soldier was named in reports as Corporal Nathan Cirillo, part of a detachment on ceremonial duties at Parliament Hill, the heart of Canada’s national government and home to its legislature. The attacker was killed, reportedly by a shot fired by the bearer of the House of Commons’ ceremonial mace, Sergeant-At-Arms Kevin Vickers, who was hailed as a hero by lawmakers.
Police said an investigation was continuing, but earlier reports that more gunmen were involved appeared unfounded. Heavily-armed officers backed by armoured vehicles sealed off the building.
The attack came two days after another alleged Islamist militant drove over and killed another soldier in what authorities branded a terrorist attack.
Authorities had raised the security threat level from low to medium after the car attack, which came as Canadian jets were to join the US-led air armada bombarding Islamist militants in Iraq.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned that “facts are still being gathered” as he “condemned this despicable attack.” A police spokesman said two people received “minor injuries” in the incident.
Lawmakers, staff and reporters evacuated from the building spoke of intense gunfire in the historic building on Parliament Hill. Video footage posted online by the Globe and Mail newspaper showed police ducking for cover as they advanced along a stone hallway, loud gunfire echoing among parliament’s stone columns.
A video image shows police officers moving through the halls of the Parliament building in Ottawa, Canada, after reports of shots being fired. (AFP/HANDOUT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
‘POP, POP, POP’
A member of parliament, Maurice Vellacott, told AFP that House of Commons security had told one of his aides the suspect had been killed inside parliament.
“I literally had just taken off my jacket to go into caucus. I hear this ‘pop, pop, pop,’ possibly 10 shots, don’t really know,” Liberal Party member John McKay told reporters outside. “Suddenly the security guards come rushing down the hallways and usher us all out to the back of the parliament buildings,” he said, as lawmakers, staff and reporters scurried from the area.
Witnesses at the scene said they saw a man armed with a rifle running into parliament after shooting a guard at the war memorial. Passers-by told reporters that a bearded man had gunned down the soldier and hijacked a passing vehicle to take him the short distance to Parliament Hill, on a bluff over the Ottawa River.
Police converge on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014. (Photo: AP/The Canadian Press, Adrian Wyld)
One witness, parliamentary aide Marc-Andre Viau, said he saw a man run into a caucus meeting at the parliament, chased by police armed with rifles who yelled “take cover”. That was followed by “10, 15, maybe 20 shots,” possibly from an automatic weapon, he said. “I’m shaken,” said Viau.
Police raced to seal off the parliament building and Harper’s office, pushing reporters and bystanders further back and blocking roads. Harper – who was attending a meeting with lawmakers at the time – left the area of the shooting and was “safe”, his spokesman Jason MacDonald said.
ISLAMIC STATE SYMPATHIES
In Canada’s southern neighbour the United States, President Barack Obama condemned the attack as “outrageous” after talking by telephone with Harper, the White House said. “We don’t yet have all the information about whether this was part a broader network or plan, or whether this was an individual or a series of individuals,” Obama said.
Officials said US and Canadian air defences were on alert, and the US embassy in Ottawa was placed on lockdown.
The incident came a day after 25-year-old Martin Couture-Rouleau ran over a soldier, killing him before being shot dead by police as he emerged from his wrecked car wielding a knife. Couture-Rouleau was reportedly a supporter of the so-called Islamic State, a militant group operating in Iraq and Syria, and on the same list as Zehaf-Bibeau.
Canadian authorities have warned they are tracking 90 suspects, and “intelligence has indicated an individual or group within Canada or abroad has the intent and capability to commit an act of terrorism.”
After the incident, much of downtown Ottawa remained on lockdown and heavily-armed officers from Ottawa Police and the Mounties continued to patrol the area.
Map of eastern Canada locating Ottawa. (AFP)