A car slammed at high speed into carnival revelers in a small town in southern Belgium early Sunday, killing six people and leaving 10 more with life-threatening injuries. Several dozen were more lightly injured.
“What should have been a great party turned into a tragedy,” said Belgian Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden.
The prosecutor’s office said that in the early stages of the investigation there were no elements to suspect a terror motive, and two locals in their thirties were arrested at the scene in Strépy-Bracquegnies, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Brussels.
In an age-old tradition, carnival revelers had gathered at dawn, intending to pick up others at their homes along the way, to finally hold their famous festivity again after it was banned for the past two years to counter the spread of COVID-19. Some dressed in colorful garb with bells attached, walking behind the beat of drums.
It was supposed to be a day of deliverance.
Instead, said mayor Jacques Gobert, “what happened turned it into a national catastrophe.”
More than 150 people of all ages had gathered around 5 a.m. and were standing in a thick crowd along a long, straight road.
Suddenly, “a car drove from the back at high speed. And we have a few dozen injured and unfortunately several people who are killed,” Gobert said.
The driver and a second person were arrested when their car came to a halt a few hundred meters further on.
Since Belgium was hit with twin terror attacks in Brussels and Zaventem that killed 32 civilians six years ago, thoughts of a terror motive are never far away.
But prosecutor Damien Verheyen said “there is no element in the investigation at this time that allows me to consider that the motivations of the two could have been terror related.”
The prosecutor’s office also denied media reports that the crash may have been caused by a car that was being chased by police.
King Philippe and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo were expected in Strépy-Bracquegnies later Sunday to express support for the families and victims.
Belgian Prime Minister De Croo deplored the “horrible news” in which “a community gathering to celebrate has been hit in the heart,” he wrote on Twitter.
Belgian towns and villages host many street carnivals around the season of Lent, with the parades in Binche and Alost the most known, internationally.
Like Binche, the carnival of Strepy-Bracquegnies involves participants dressed up as “Gilles,” comical figures who are “called out” to the parade in the early hours.
“I was walking by,” one witness, Theo, told RTBF news.
“I turned around and saw a car running into the troop. It came very fast and didn’t brake. It continued and it took a girl 100 metres further,” he said.
In neighboring Germany, a man in February 2020 rammed his car through a carnival procession, 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 ISIS group sympathizer ploughed a truck through a Christmas market leaving 12 dead.
Germany has seen several such attacks since, with most carried out by people who were found to have psychological issues.
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