LONDON — In an attack that raised new fears of terrorism in Britain, a man walking near a military barracks in south London on Wednesday was rammed by a car and then hacked to death by two knife-wielding assailants, according to witness accounts carried by British news media.
British officials did not identify the victim, but the French president, François Hollande, referred to him as “a soldier” in expressing France’s sympathy to the visiting British prime minister, David Cameron, who had been en route to Paris from Brussels when the attack took place.
British media outlets reported that the victim was a British soldier wearing the shirt of the Help for Heroes charity that aids British service members injured in combat. Neither Scotland Yard nor government officials confirmed those reports, but Nick Raynsford, a legislator from the Woolwich neighborhood where the attack occurred, told the BBC that the man killed was a soldier serving at a nearby army barracks.
The two suspects were shot and wounded by the police, officials said, and were in two separate hospitals under police guard, one in serious condition.
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One of the men shouted “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” as the attack proceeded, government officials said.
Cameron, at a news conference in Paris, said the killing was “an appalling murder” and “absolutely sickening.”
“There are strong indications that it is a terrorist incident,” Cameron said. He interrupted his European tour to return to London late Wednesday.
ITV News showed a video taken with a cellphone at the scene in Woolwich in which a man who appears to be in his 20s or early 30s holds a cleaver in one of his bloodied hands. He offers what seems to be a political message before the police arrive.
“I apologize that women had to see this today, but in our lands women have to see the same thing,” he says in a British accent. “You people will never be safe. Remove your governments! They don’t care about you.”
He then refers to what appeared to be a motive for the attack, saying it had been carried out “because of what’s going on in our own countries.”
If confirmed as an act of terrorism, it would mark the first death from such an attack in Britain since 52 people were killed in four coordinated suicide bombings targeting London’s transit system on July 7, 2005.
The Cabinet’s emergency committee was immediately convened, and security was stepped up at army barracks across London. Cameron cut short his Paris trip to return to London, and his office said he would chair another session Thursday.
The incident unfolded Wednesday afternoon when officers responded to reports of an assault a few blocks from the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich.
Images from the scene showed a blue car that appeared to have been used in the attack, its hood crushed and rammed into a signpost on a sidewalk that was smeared with blood. A number of weapons — including butchers’ knives, a machete and a meat cleaver — were strewn on the street.
Along with the Royal Artillery Barracks, the area is home to nearly all of Great Britain’s terrorism trials.
The prosecutions were moved to a high-security court less than two miles from Wednesday’s attacks in 2006 because of its proximity to Belmarsh Prison, so prisoners don’t have to be transported through London.
“This makes me sick because it shouldn’t happen,” said James Coombes, who lives in nearby Plumstead. “If it is a Muslim extremist, I can kind of understand to a certain point, because they don’t like British soldiers.”
Britons were gripped by snippets of videos filmed by bystanders. The attackers encouraged passengers on a bus to photograph them and film them with phone cameras, leading to a number of chilling videos and still photos posted online.
Other images showed the second suspect clutching a long knife as he engaged in conversation with a woman who British media said tried to intervene to prevent further bloodshed.
The Daily Telegraph identified the woman as Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, 48, and said she confronted the attackers, telling them: “It is only you versus many people. You are going to lose.”
Saying she wanted to stop the suspect from attacking anyone else, she asked him if he “did it” and what he wanted.
“He said: ‘I killed him because he killed Muslims and I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan. They have nothing to do there,’” she told the newspaper.
The BBC reported Wednesday night that at least one of the two men had been identified by British security officials as having family origins in Nigeria.
Organizations representing Britain’s 2.5 million Muslims were quick to condemn the attack. “No cause justifies this murder,” the Muslim Council of Britain said in a statement on behalf of the network of mosques, schools and charities it represents.
It described the killing in Woolwich as “a barbaric act that has no basis in Islam,” and added that the “vast majority of British Muslims acknowledge the armed forces for the work they do.”
The assault took place near a heavily trafficked junction, a short walk from the London headquarters of the Royal Artillery.
Witnesses said two men had gotten out and attacked the prone victim with large bladed weapons. Some said the men had beheaded him.
A man who said he had seen the entire attack told the BBC that the assailants had lingered at the scene, talking to passers-by about what they had done.
Some witnesses said a man had leapt from an unmarked car and aimed a handgun at the assailants, shouting to pedestrians to clear the area.
The witness who said he had seen the full attack said a policewoman with a handgun fired on the two suspects after one of them rushed toward a group of police officers.
Britain has suffered more than any other country in Northern Europe from Islamic terrorist plots in recent years, and it has worked assiduously to prevent more. Security officials have said that at any given time they are tracking hundreds of young men in extremist networks.
But small-scale attacks can be hard to detect. The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi websites, distributed a posting from one Wednesday after the London killing. Dating from July 2011, the message on Shumukh al-Islam, an extremist website that has been linked to al-Qaida, urges followers to mount “lone-wolf operations” that might include beheadings.
Two British government officials said late Wednesday that the attack seemed to have been ideologically motivated by radical Islam, adding that the assessment was not based solely on the video footage of one suspect making political statements against the British government. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
Scotland Yard confirmed that counterterrorism officers were leading an investigation into the attack. Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said the two men had been arrested and urged Londoners to remain calm.
Late Wednesday, riot police fanned out in Woolwich as about 50 men waving the flag of the far-right English Defense League gathered, singing nationalistic songs and shouting obscenities about the Quran.
Material from The Washington Post, The Associated Press and Bloomberg News is included in this report.