HAMBURG — A psychologically disturbed man plowed a van into a crowd in the northern German city of Münster on Saturday afternoon, killing two people and injuring 20 before shooting himself, German officials said.
The attack sparked fears on a continent that has been hit repeatedly by attacks in which vehicles have been turned into weapons in crowded city centers. But a top German official said that investigators did not believe the attack was by a terrorist.
“At the moment, there is no evidence that there is any Islamist background” to the attack, said Herbert Reul, the interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, the state where Münster is located. He said that the driver was a German citizen and that investigators were still working to establish a motive. Reul said that two victims and the attacker died in the incident, lowering the toll from what authorities previously said was three victims.
A senior German security official briefed on the ongoing investigation said that investigators believe the attacker was the 48-year-old in whose name the van is registered and that he had recently tried to take his life.
Police also dispatched a bomb squad to the scene to check whether there were explosives in the van, the senior security official said.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the unfolding details of the case.
The van injured 20 people, six seriously, after it ran into a group of outdoor tables at a restaurant, North Rhine-Westphalia police spokesman Andreas Bode told reporters.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “in light of the horrible incident in Münster, I’m deeply shocked. Everything possible is being done to investigate the act and support the victims and their families.”
Large portions of the city center remained shut down hours later, as helicopters hovered in the sky and police officers with large rifles blocked streets.
Images of the city center showed a small delivery van that appeared to have hopped onto a sidewalk and plowed through the seats and tables of an outdoor cafe. Chairs were scattered and broken across a small cobblestone plaza. The incident took place at the square surrounding the Kiepenkerl statue, a city landmark that commemorates a traveling peddler.
“I heard a loud, dull noise and suddenly everyone started shouting,” a witness, Steffen Simonsen, told Germany’s ARD broadcaster. “Everyone started running toward the square and about a minute later, a police car had already arrived.”
The Kiepenkerl area, dotted with boutiques, high-end shops and cafes, is a favorite of both tourists and locals. Saturday was the warmest day this year, with the temperature hitting 76 degrees in the city of 300,000, drawing people out to lounge in the sunshine.
“The weather was fantastic, and all restaurants had put chairs outside. There were lots of people,” Simonsen said.
Local news outlets said that police had already been deployed in larger-than-normal numbers in the city center to keep watch over a pro-Kurdish demonstration. When the van plowed across the square midafternoon, officers were able to divert quickly.
Vehicles have been used in terrorist attacks across Europe in recent years, including in Germany. In December 2016, a Tunisian man whose asylum request had been rejected crashed a truck through a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 and injuring 56.
The incident in Münster came a year to the day after a man driving a stolen delivery truck slammed into a crowd in Stockholm, killing five.
Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Luisa Beck and Rick Noack in Berlin contributed to this report.