MELBOURNE: A car deliberately ploughed into pedestrians injuring 19 people at a crowded intersection in the Australian city of Melbourne on Thursday (Dec 21), but police said they did not believe the attack to be terror-related.
A spokesman for the Victoria Police said in a statement that the incident took place at about 4.45pm Melbourne time (1.45pm, Singapore time) at the intersection of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets.
Jim Stoupas, the owner of a donut shop near the intersection, told Reuters the vehicle was travelling up to 100 kph (62 mph) and the intersection was packed, just days before Christmas.
"He just ploughed into the pedestrians and what stopped him was, I think, just the amount of pedestrians he'd mowed over," Stoupas said in a phone interview.
"He came to a rest against the tram sign, and all you could hear was just 'bang bang bang bang bang' (of the car hitting pedestrians) and screams."
Police arrived at the scene “within minutes” and arrested two men.
The driver of the vehicle, a 32-year-old Australian citizen of Afghan descent, was arrested by an off-duty police officer, Victoria state Police Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said in a press conference.
The driver, who resisted arrest, was known to police on previous assault matters. He has a history of drug abuse and mental health issues, Patton told reporters in Melbourne.
But though the incident was a "deliberate act", the man is not known to have any terror links. "At this time we do not have any evidence or intelligence to indicate a connection with terrorism," said Patton.
The driver was alone in his vehicle when he carried out the ramming.
The second person arrested, a 24-year-old man, was arrested filming the incident. Though he was found with knives in his bag, police believe he is not connected to the incident and he is assisting police with enquiries.
Victoria's premier, Daniel Andrews said 19 people were sent to hospital, including a pre-school child with a serious head injury. Out of the 19, four of the victims were in critical condition.
Police said they will continue to have a strong presence in the Melbourne CBD on Thursday night.
"Police and emergency services will remain on scene for the foreseeable future ... the crime scene will remain in place for a considerable period of time and we are urging people who can avoid the area to avoid the area."
'PEOPLE FLYING EVERYWHERE'
A witness, Sue, told 3AW Melbourne that she heard screams and saw "people flying everywhere".
"We could hear this noise, as we looked left, we saw this white car, it just mowed everybody down," she said.
"People are flying everywhere. We heard thump, thump. People are running everywhere."
Another witness, John, told reporters that he saw a "SUV coming at high speed".
"(I) really just heard the collision with people with bags and what must be shopping trolleys - and I hope not prams," he said.
"I've really never seen anything like this before and I haven't stopped shaking."
Netizens posted photos of crowds at the scene.
"Massive incident/accident at the corner of Flinders Street and Elizabeth Street. Ambulance and emergency vehicles rushing to site. Hard to establish what happened. All happening quickly," wrote Twitter user Mike Lee.
Major streets in Australian cities have been packed with Christmas shoppers this week.
The incident took place on Flinders street, a major road that runs alongside the Yarra River, in the central business district of Australia's second-biggest city.
"Our thoughts & prayers are with the victims & the emergency & health workers who are treating them," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a post on his official Twitter account.
Melbourne has installed about 140 concrete bollards in the city centre to stop vehicle attacks by militants.
Sydney, Australia's biggest city, has installed concrete barricades in main pedestrian thoroughfares.
Thursday's incident came months after a car mowed down pedestrians in Melbourne's busiest mall in January, killing four people.
The driver, whose case is still being heard in court, had been pursued by police prior to the rampage after he had allegedly stabbed his brother. That incident was not terrorism-related.
Australia has been on a "high" national threat level since 2015, citing the likelihood of attacks by Australians radicalised in Iraq and Syria.
Two hostages were killed during a 17-hour siege by a "lone wolf" gunman, inspired by Islamic State militants, in a cafe in Sydney in December 2014.