LA LOUVIÈRE (Belgium), March 21 — Belgium mourned yesterday after a car ploughed into a crowd of early morning carnival-goers, killing six people and injuring dozens of others, but the authorities ruled out an act of terrorism.
The tragedy took place around 5.00am (0400 GMT) as the carnival of Strepy-Bracquegnies, a district in the former coal-mining town of La Louviere, was getting under way.
“At this stage of the investigation, we know that a vehicle slammed into a group (of carnival goers) and that there are six dead and 26 injured, including 10 people whose life is in danger,” prosecutor Damien Verheyen told reporters at the town’s city hall.
Investigators said the suspects were born in 1988 and 1990 and came from La Louviere, a town near the French border in Belgium’s rust belt. They were not known to the authorities for similar acts.
Chief prosecutor Christian Henry said the two were coming from a nightclub “and had just dropped off another person just before the events”.
Blood test results were expected today and “will allow us to say if they have consumed drugs”, he told RTBF news.
“Nothing goes in the direction of radicalism or extremism,” he said.
“The facts have been qualified as murder but we will see what the investigation will reveal and if we should requalify the thing as manslaughter,” he added.
From ‘Folklore to horror’
Belgian towns and villages host many street carnivals around the season of Lent, with the parades in Binche and Aalst the best known internationally.
Like Binche, the carnival of Strepy-Bracquegnies involves participants dressed up as “Gilles”, extravagantly attired comical figures who are “called out” to the parade in the early hours.
La Louviere mayor Jacques Gobert said there were 150 to 200 people participating in the carnival’s pre-dawn prologue, including the “Gilles” in their garb.
When they reached a road, “a car coming from behind at high speed literally pulverised a large number of people,” he told journalists.
Witnesses described a horrific scene of a car that drove into a group of carnival-goers that included children.
Fabrice Collignon, a Belgian TV presenter, told AFP the procession was under way when in a “snap of the fingers we went from fun and folklore to absolute horror.”
The car seemed to “deliberately crashed into the crowd”, said Collignon.
Another witness, Theo, told RTBF news he saw a car that moved “very fast and didn’t brake”.
‘Day of mourning’
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and other ministers rushed to the scene along with Belgium’s King Philippe, who met first responders in the Strepy-Bracquegnies sports hall, where the morning’s carnival procession began.
“It should have been a day of celebration after a difficult time. It turned into a day of mourning,” De Croo told reporters, noting that the carnival was the first after two years of cancellations because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The RIAAL La Louviere football team said that one of the victims was a steward at the club and that a match scheduled later yesterday had been cancelled.
“Words fail us,” the team wrote on its Facebook page.
In neighbouring France, President Emmanuel Macron “assured the Belgian prime minister of his support and friendship after this tragedy”, his office said.
In February 2020, a man rammed his car through a carnival procession in Germany, injuring dozens of bystanders including children.
Germany and other countries at the time had been on high alert for car ramming attacks since December 2016, when an Islamic State group sympathiser ploughed a truck through a Christmas market leaving 12 dead.
German towns have seen several such attacks since, with most carried out by people who were found to have psychological issues. — AFP