Gunmen attacked six locations in central Vienna on Monday (2 November) starting outside the main synagogue, killing four people and injuring at least 17 in what Austria called a “repulsive terror attack” while hunting one or more assailants on the loose.
Witnesses described the men firing into crowds in bars with automatic rifles, as many people took advantage of the last evening before a nationwide curfew was introduced because of COVID-19. At around 8 pm, attackers opened fire in front of a synagogue on Schwedenplatz in the city center. They were armed with automatic rifles and carried vast amounts of ammunition. There was a firefight with the police. In the course of the night, shots were fired at five other downtown locations.
One office suffered severe injuries, one attacker was shot and killed by the police. He had strapped an explosive belt, which turned out to be fake.
Four civilians died
The hospitals saw 17 civilian persons admitted with bullet and stabbing wounds, seven of them with grave injuries. In the course of the night, four of them passed away: Two men, two women.
To apprehend a potentially fugitive attacker, the government is in contact with neighboring states to impose enhanced border controls. Austrian special forces cooperate with their european counterparts within the ATLAS-group.
Police sealed off much of the historic centre of Vienna, urging the public to shelter in place. Many sought refuge in bars and hotels, while public transport throughout the old town was shut down and police scoured the city.
“It is the hardest day for Austria in many years. We are dealing with a terror attack the severity of which, thank God, we have not experienced in Austria in many years,” Interior Minister Karl Nehammer told a news conference.
He described the assailant killed by police in an attack in central Vienna on Monday as an “Islamist terrorist”.
“We experienced an attack yesterday evening from at least one Islamist terrorist,” he told a news conference, calling the man an Islamic State sympathiser.
Compulsory school attendance is suspended for Tuesday, citizens are asked to stay at home if possible. It is also the first day of the Austrian second lockdown.
Austria’s capital had so far been spared the kind of deadly militant attacks that have struck Paris, London, Berlin and Brussels, among others, in recent years. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the “repulsive” act was “definitely a terror attack”, but he could not say what the motive was.
Oskar Deutsch, the head of Vienna’s Jewish community, which has offices adjoining the synagogue on a narrow cobbled street dotted with bars, said on Twitter that it was not clear whether the temple or offices were targeted but that they were closed at the time.
Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister told London’s LBC radio he was living in the compound of the synagogue. “Upon hearing shots, we looked down (from) the windows and saw the gunmen shooting at the guests of the various bars and pubs,” he said.
“The gunmen were running around and shooting at least 100 rounds or even more in front of our building,” he said.
Border checks were being reinforced, the Interior Ministry said, and children would not be required to attend school on Tuesday. Although people were urged to stay indoors Vienna Mayor Michael Ludwig told broadcaster ORF the city would run normally on Tuesday, Philip lbeit with a tougher police presence.
“According to what we currently know, at least one perpetrator is still on the run,” Nehammer said.
“We have brought several special forces units together that are now searching for the presumed terrorists. I am therefore not limiting it to an area of Vienna, because these are mobile perpetrators,” Nehammer earlier told ORF.
Kurz said the army would protect sites in the capital so the police could focus on anti-terror operations. Speaking to ORF, he said the attackers “were very well equipped with automatic weapons” and had “prepared professionally”.
Videos circulated on social media of a gunman running down a cobblestone street shooting and shouting. One showed a man gunning down a person outside what appeared to be a bar on the street housing the synagogue. Reuters could not immediately verify the videos.
Support pours in
Condolences poured in from around the world, with top officials from the European Union, France, Norway, Greece and the United States expressing their shock at the attacks.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, which has seen two deadly knife attacks in Paris and Nice in recent weeks, issued a statement expressing shock and sorrow.
“This is our Europe,” he said. “Our enemies must know with whom they are dealing. We will not retreat.”
Wir, Franzosen, teilen den Schock und die Trauer von der Österreicher nach einer Angriff in Wien. Nach Frankreich ist es ein befreundetes Land, das angegriffen wird. Dies ist unser Europa. Unsere Feinde müssen wissen, mit wem sie es zu tun haben. Wir werden nichts nachgeben.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) November 2, 2020
French officials have ramped up security since the attacks in Paris and Nice, which had suspected Islamist motives. Macron has deployed thousands of soldiers to protect sites such as places of worship and schools, and ministers have warned that other Islamist militant attacks could take place.
European Council chief Charles Michel said: “Europe strongly condemns this cowardly act that violates life and our human values. My thoughts are with the victims and the people of #Vienna in the wake of tonight’s horrific attack. We stand with Austria.”
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that she was “shocked and saddened”, and that her “thoughts are with the families of the victims and the Austrian people”.
I am shocked and saddened by the brutal attack that took place in Vienna. My thoughts are with the families of the victims and the Austrian people.
Europe stands in full solidarity with Austria. We are stronger than hatred and terror.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) November 2, 2020
The president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, said he felt “sadness and horror” and the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell called it “a cowardly act of violence and hate”.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said there was “no room for hatred and violence in our common European home”, while his foreign minister Luigi Di Maio tweeted that “Europe must react”.
In the Czech Republic, which neighbours Austria, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said he was “horrified by the attack” and wanted to “express my solidarity to all people in Austria and my friend Sebastian Kurz”.
Czech police said they had started random checks on the country’s border with Austria.
“Police are carrying out random checks of vehicles and passengers on border crossings with Austria as a preventive measure in relation to the terror attack in Vienna,” Czech police tweeted.
Police also said they had stepped up “supervision over major Jewish facilities in the Czech Republic” in a preventive measure that “reflects developments not only in neighbouring Austria”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that he was “deeply shocked” by the night’s events and that the “UK’s thoughts are with the people of Austria – we stand united with you against terror”.
Robert O’Brien, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, said Americans were praying for the people of Vienna.
“There is no justification for hatred and violence like this. We stand with Austria, France, and all of Europe in the fight against terrorism,” O’Brien said.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden condemned what he called a “horrific terrorist attack,” adding, “We must all stand united against hate and violence.”
In 1981, two people were killed and 18 injured during an attack by two Palestinians at the same Vienna synagogue. In 1985, a Palestinian extremist group killed three civilians in an attack at the airport.