A man accused of killing four members of a Canadian Muslim family after running them over in his pick-up truck, targeted them in an attack motivated by hate, police said on Monday.
Police in London, Ontario, citing witnesses, said that 20-year-old Nathaniel Veltman jumped the curb in his vehicle on Sunday, struck five members of the family, ranging in age from 9 to 74, and then drove off at high speed.
Mr Veltman, a resident of London who was arrested after the incident, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. He is due back in court on Thursday after being remanded to custody on Monday.
“There is evidence that this was a planned, premeditated act, motivated by hate,” Det Supt Paul Waight of the London police department told reporters. “We believe the victims were targeted because of their Islamic faith.”
The suspect does not have a criminal record and is not known to be a member of a hate group, police said. He was arrested in a car park of a shopping mall without incident while wearing a body-armour-type vest, police said. There is no evidence he had any accomplices. It was not immediately known if the suspect had hired a lawyer.
Police have not yet released the victims’ names, but the London Free Press said that among the dead were Syed Afzaal (46), his wife, Madiha Salman (44), and their 15-year-old daughter, Yumnah Afzaal. Syed Afzaal’s 74-year-old mother, whose name is not yet confirmed, also died. Their 9-year-old son, Faez Afzaal, is in the hospital with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.Learn more
The family immigrated from Pakistan about 14 years ago, according to media reports.
Eyewitness Paige Martin told reporters a black truck blasted past her and ran a red light as she was walking, and then she came upon the scene and saw “chaos”: “It was just absolutely like something that you never want to see.”
The attack was the worst against Canadian Muslims since a man gunned down six members of a Quebec City mosque in 2017. London mayor Ed Holder said it was the worst mass murder his city had ever seen.
“We grieve for the family, three generations of whom are now deceased,” Mr Holder told reporters. “This was an act of mass murder, perpetrated against Muslims, against Londoners, and rooted in unspeakable hatred.”
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter that he was “horrified” by the news, adding that “Islamophobia has no place in any of our communities. This hate is insidious and despicable – and it must stop.”
Ontario premier Doug Ford tweeted that “justice must be served for the horrific act of hatred that took place.”
By late evening on Monday, a steady stream of mourners was seen arriving near the scene of the attack, dropping off flowers and saying prayers. One placard read: “When does it stop? Enough.”
A GoFundMe campaign in support of members of the victims’ family had already raised almost 120,000 Canadian dollars (€81,000) in one hour.
A vigil has been organised at a local mosque on Tuesday night to remember the victims.
London, which has about 400,000 residents, has a large Muslim community and Mr Holder said Arabic is the second-most-spoken language to English in the city.
The teenage girl who was killed “will be deeply missed by fellow students and staff at Oakridge Secondary School, ” according to a school statement.
One man who described himself as a neighbour in an interview with Global News said he met with the family on holidays.
“He was a family guy, very much involved in the community, a regular member of our mosque, a really, really great father,” the neighbour, who was not identified, said of Syed Afzaal.
“He loved to walk with his family. Almost every evening, they walked.”
In related developments Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday labeled the killing of four members of a Muslim family, who were run down by a man driving a pick-up truck, as a "terrorist attack".
"This killing was no accident. This was a terrorist attack, motivated by hatred, in the heart of one of our communities," Trudeau said during a speech at the House of Commons.
The victims, who were struck as they walked together along a sidewalk, represent three generations of the same family, according to a statement issued by their relatives.
The husband and wife, plus their teenage daughter and a woman identified as the man's mother were killed when a black pick-up truck mounted the curb and struck them at an intersection in the city of London in Canada's central Ontario province. The driver of the truck was arrested.
The couple's nine-year-old son was hospitalized following the attack but is recovering, the statement said.
"We all hope the little boy can recover from his injuries quickly, even though we know he will live a long time with the sadness, incomprehension and anger caused by this cowardly Islamophobic attack," Trudeau said, briefly switching to French.
The victims have been identified as Madiha Salman, age 44, who had done post-graduate work in the field of civil and environmental engineering at Western University in London, as well as her husband, Salman Afzaal age 46. Their 15-year-old daughter, Yumna Salman, was also killed as well as a woman reported to be Afzaal's mother, age 74. The family is of Pakistani origin.
London police said Monday the suspect had deliberately attacked a Muslim family with his pick-up in a premeditated and planned act, motivated by hatred.
The 20-year-old suspect, arrested shortly after the attack, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, while several leaders of the Muslim community have called on the courts to deem the episode a terrorist attack.
Among them is the Muslim Association of Canada, which asked authorities to "prosecute this horrific attack as an act of hate and terrorism."
The suspect, identified as Nathaniel Veltman, who was wearing a vest "like body armor," was arrested at a mall seven kilometers (four miles) from the intersection where the attack happened, said Detective Superintendent Paul Waight.
The episode brought back painful memories of a Quebec City mosque mass shooting in January 2017 that left six dead and a driving rampage in Toronto that killed 10 people in April 2018, among other attacks.
"They were all targeted because of their Muslim faith," Trudeau said, promising to step up the country's fight against far-right racist groups. "This is happening here, in Canada. And it has to stop."
Party leaders in the House of Commons condemned the violence as an act of "Islamophobia," which have multiplied in recent years in the country long known for its tolerance.
"The reality is our Canada is a place of racism of violence, of genocide of indigenous people, and our counties, a place where Muslims aren't safe, they aren't," said Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democrats.
Flower bouquets and toys have been placed at the scene of the attack and a vigil in memory of the victims is set to take place later Tuesday at a mosque, with Trudeau and Singh plus the leader of the conservative opposition, Erin O'Toole, among those who plan to attend.
Sources: Irish Times, Arab News