Bourke Street attack: assailant, one stabbing victim dead in 'terrorism incident'

Police are treating an attack in Melbourne’s Bourke Street mall in which one person was fatally stabbed and two others were injured as an incident of terrorism.

The attacker was shot by police as the terrifying scene unfolded in Melbourne’s city district on Friday. He died later that night in hospital.

Witnesses said they heard a loud explosion and saw a car bust into flames outside Target on Bourke Street, between Swanston and Russell Streets, about 4.20pm.

Chief commissioner Graham Ashton said the attacker was known to police and federal intelligence agencies.

“What we know so far about the individual … from what we know we are treating this as a terrorism incident,” he said.

“We believe we have confirmation on the identity [and] there are ongoing investigations being conducted by counter-terrorism. I am not at liberty to disclose the identity of this person.”

“He is known to police, mainly in respect to relatives that he has that are persons of interest to us. He is someone who is accordingly known to Victoria Police and the federal intelligence authorities.”

Ashton said there was no ongoing threat and would not share any further details of the attacker’s identity and motive.

Video footage circulating on social media showed a man advancing toward police after the vehicle exploded and attempting to stab them, and then falling backwards after what sounded like a gunshot. One of the police officers had their weapon drawn.

The altercation was filmed by several bystanders at the scene from multiple angles.

But Ashton denied that the attacker had yelled “Allahu Ackbar”, as reported by some on social media.

He said fire and rescue discovered barbecue-style gas cylinders inside the ute.

“Witnesses with to this event and people were recording things on social media platforms on their phones etcetera as well,” Ashton said. “If there are witnesses to this event, eyewitnesses, we would like to talk with them and we’d ask if they could attend any of our police stations, the Melbourne West station located at Spencer Street and we can interview and hopefully get statements from any witnesses that did see things.”

Aaksh Verma gave a statement to police after witnessing the incident unfold. He was working when he heard a bang. He went outside and said he saw a ute in flames rolling diagnoally towards Target. Then he saw police pull up. “A black guy came towards the cops as the cops were staying inside the car,” Verma said.

“I’m not sure if he opened the door or if the cop opened the door.”

Once the door of the car was open and while the police officer was still sitting down, the man began stabbing him with something sharp, Verma said. He was not sure if the man made contact with the police officer, or if the police officer’s vest prevented him from being stabbed.

The police officer’s partner got out from the other side of the vehicle and came around to intervene.

“He [the man] backed off.”

Both police attempted to use pepper spray and to taser the guy but it didn’t seem to have any effect, Verma said.

“The person didn’t look like he wanted to run away, he wanted to stay and fight,” Verma said. “He was saying nothing. He had like a million chances to run away, there are many laneways.”

Verma said bystanders then attempted to help while the police waited for backup, one armed with a trolley and another armed with a chair.

On Friday night the premier, Daniel Andrews, offered his condolences.

He said “we will not be defined by this” and thanked police for their “very quick response” and said “they have done each and every one of us proud”.

“Stranger and bystanders, who knew nobody involved, stepped in without a moment’s hesitation … they too are people whose qualities make us all proud as well,” he said.

“We extend our thoughts and prayers to all who are injured and extend our deepest, deepest sympathies.”

He said people should contact Lifeline, Griefline and Beyond Blue if they had been affected.

“These are traumatic events, they are terrifying,” the premier said. “Many will have seen them first hand.”

The incident comes two days after the trial for Melbourne man James Gargasoulas, who has pleaded not guilty to 33 charges including six counts of murder for a deadly incident on 20 January, 2017, when he allegedly drove a car through pedestrians along Bourke Street mall and killed six people.

Cars are not allowed in the part of the street where the incident occurred, and the area has been further protected by concrete bollards since the January 2017 tragedy. However there is access for police cars, trams and garbage trucks.

Witnesses said police were at the scene within minutes.

Neil McKeller, who works at Hylands Bookshop on Bourke Street, told Guardian Australia he heard a loud explosion and then gunshots.

“We heard the explosion, and we heard gunshots later,” McKellar said. “We heard it but we didn’t know what it was.”

The buildings surrounding the incident were put into lockdown, and police blocked off sections of Bourke and Swanston streets. Trams on both streets were also halted.

Witness Meegan May was travelling on a tram when the incident occurred.

“A couple of people on the trams were saying someone had a knife and when I got up and looked through the rear window,” she told the ABC. “I could see a big ute on fire driving across the road.

“It sort of came to a stop on the other side, and then I could see a man and two police sort of trying to calm him down. He was waving his arms around, someone was saying he had a knife – I couldn’t tell from where I was.

“And then not too long after that, I heard a loud bang that sounded a bit like a gunshot, nothing like an explosion, and then a person near me said they could see someone giving someone chest expressions and an ambulance and 50 cop cars came out of nowhere not long after that.”

Police have asked all witnesses and anyone with video footage to send it to them via a link on the Victoria Police facebook page.

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