BARCELONA (Reuters) - Spanish authorities came under fire on Friday from shocked Barcelona residents and holidaymakers for not better protecting the city’s most famous thoroughfare against a deadly van attack in the heart of a packed tourist haunt.
Thirteen people were killed on Thursday afternoon when a van driven by a suspected Islamist militant mounted a pedestrian walkway running down Las Ramblas avenue in central Barcelona, mowing down crowds strolling along the boulevard.
It was the latest in a series of such attacks that have killed more than 100 people across Europe in 13 months. In the worst, a truck killed 86 people in Nice last July.
“It was practically bound to happen over here, especially after what happened in Nice,” said Gabriel Rabarte, 50, a security guard at a shopping centre just off the Ramblas. “They should have put some (bollards) there, or something.”
Residents and workers said they had long feared the area could be a target for attacks and questioned why authorities in the city and police had not permanently installed bollards or barriers to stop vehicles from attempting to mow down passersby.
Others said authorities had to balance security needs with protecting tourism - a sector sensitive to an overly visible police presence - and preserving the life-style of residents.
Barcelona’s city authorities said extra police had already been deployed to Las Ramblas before Thursday’s attacks and security was constantly under review.
Gally Battat, 24, an American who lives near the area and was a few streets away from where the attack took place, said he had last week noticed that there were no bollards on Las Ramblas and other areas that would be likely targets for a car attack.
Spanish authorities have previously placed concrete blocks to secure vulnerable areas, and Barcelona had temporarily taken such steps in some central avenues during New Year celebrations.
The city had also banned large trucks from accessing central areas in that period, as had Madrid. Authorities installed large concrete plant pots near Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol square overnight after the Barcelona attack.
In the French city of Nice, scene of a truck attack on Bastille Day last year, the mayor said he would convene a meeting of his European counterparts next month to see how they can improve security following the Barcelona attack.
“It’s obvious that it is the mayors - be it in Berlin, London, Paris, Nice, Barcelona or Stockholm - who are the first to be confronted with this violence and who manage these public areas,” Christian Estrosi told reporters.
Jose Moya, who has worked as a florist on Las Ramblas in Barcelona for the past 30 years and whose stall narrowly escaped being hit by the van in the attack, said on Friday he wished police had put more thought into how to protect the area.
“We have always said Las Ramblas is an easy target,” he said. “What happened is an atrocity. I’m not saying it’s the police’s fault ... (but) I don’t know, maybe you can’t put in bollards, but if we’re on high alert, you could have police vans stationed there blocking the way. It would have saved lives.”
Eduardo Olmedo, a 25-year-old retail worker who witnessed the attack, said authorities should consider erecting barriers in busy areas across Spain.
However, authorities in Catalonia said attacks like Thursday’s were hard to prevent.
“Absolute security is impossible, it would mean giving up our freedom and shuttering ourselves up in our homes,” Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, told Catalan television.
“Having 100 percent control over the many places that could be targets in a large and international city like Barcelona is impossible,” she added.
“I understand the debate, but this is not practical ... we can’t fill up Barcelona with bollards,” Joaquim Forn, who runs home affairs in Catalonia, told Spanish radio.
In spite of the security concerns many in Barcelona shrugged off fears of attack to pay their respects to victims on Friday.
By midday thousands of people had returned the Ramblas area, gathering in a nearby square, chanting “We are not afraid.” Police were inspecting backpacks and handbags belonging to people trying to access the area as a precaution.
Additional reporting by Inmaculada Sanz, Alba Asenjo and Emily Lupton in Madrid and Karen Freifeld in Washington, Writing by Sarah White; Editing by Julien Toyer and Richard Balmforth