by Joe JACKSON, with Phil HAZLEWOOD in London
Agence France Presse
BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom (AFP) — Detectives in Britain’s second city of Birmingham on Sunday launched a hunt for a knifeman who killed one and critically injured two in a series of random stabbings over several hours.
Five others suffered minor injuries in the attacks, which happened at four separate locations in the busy city centre between 12:30 (2330 GMT Saturday) and 2:30 am.
One of the areas was in the heart of Birmingham’s Gay Village but officers ruled out a hate crime. They also rejected any links to gang violence and terrorism.
“It does appear to be random in terms of the people that were attacked,” said Chief Superintendent Steve Graham of West Midlands police. “This is being treated as a homicide.”
Britain has been on high alert after two mass stabbings in London in the last year, which saw armed officers shoot dead both perpetrators — convicted Islamic extremists who had been released early from prison.
In June, a man was charged with murder after three people were stabbed to death in a park in Reading, west of London, in an attack under investigation by counter-terrorism police.
Six people, including a police officer, were then injured at a hotel housing asylum seekers in the Scottish city of Glasgow. Armed police also shot dead the suspected attacker.
Stabbings in England and Wales increased six percent in the year to the end of March, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Birmingham is one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse cities with a population of more than one million, and has had an explosive recent history of gang violence.
– Hooded suspect –
No details were immediately released about the identity of the victims other than that the person killed was male, and the two people critically injured are a man and a woman.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel both sent condolences to the victims and thanked the emergency services, who declared a “major incident” in response to the attacks.
Local MP Shabana Mahmood said Birmingham city centre was packed at the time, with many people eating and drinking outside bars and restaurants.
Mahmood, of the main opposition Labour party, said the “violent and shocking scenes” undermined efforts to recover from the effects of more than three months of coronavirus lockdown.
Eyewitnesses earlier told AFP about violence in one of the four locations, in and around the Arcadian Centre, a popular venue filled with restaurants, nightclubs and bars, where the Gay Village meets the Chinese Quarter.
One local bar manager on nearby Hurst Street, David Nash, said he saw a hooded suspect walking casually until the alarm was raised and he ran off.
“I was on the street around 2:20 am and we heard somebody shout down the street, ‘stop him, he’s just stabbed somebody’,” he said.
Another witness to the chaotic scenes described seeing paramedics treating a woman on the ground.
– Safety fears –
Local Labour councillor Yvonne Mosquito, a former lord mayor of Birmingham, praised police for tackling so-called “black on black” violence in Birmingham in the early 2000s.
But she said social exclusion among younger people remained a real problem, with many getting involved in drug dealing.
West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson told reporters an uptick in violent crime was “almost inevitable” after the pressures of lockdown.
“I’m surprised,” said local man Wayne Hopkins, 67. “Usually when you get a stabbing it’s just one or two people but not this many.”
Two Lithuanians, who gave their names only as Ivan, and Edgar, said the city centre can seem aggressive and dangerous, especially at night.
“Homeless people, drug addicts, gangs… it’s definitely not safe,” said Ivan, 26. “It feels like it was better before. You never feel safe around Birmingham.”
© Agence France-Presse