Toronto (Canada) (AFP) – Canada on Tuesday charged a man alleged to have plowed a van onto a crowded Toronto sidewalk with 10 counts of murder, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged a rattled nation not to allow a “senseless attack” to shake its values.
Police said the suspect, 25-year-old Alek Minassian, was not known to them before Monday’s carnage in Canada’s most populous city, which also left 15 people injured.
He was not in the crosshairs of intelligence and security agencies, and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale played down any suggestion that the attack bore the hallmarks of those carried out by truck-driving extremists in London, Nice and other major cities.
“This is a very large homicide investigation currently under way,” Goodale said, in a speech to a G7 international security meeting in Toronto, several miles from the incident.
“The investigation which is underway is still in its very early hours but so far, there is no discernable connection to national security,” he told delegates and reporters.
But authorities said the incident during the busy lunch hour Monday was undoubtedly deliberate, and a shaven-headed Minassian appeared in court Tuesday to face first degree murder charges.
He also faces 13 counts of the attempted murder of most of those injured in the incident. Several of the victims were named in court documents, while others were still being identified.
“Mr. Minassian is the alleged driver of the van that killed ten people on Yonge Street yesterday afternoon,” Crown prosecutor Joe Callaghan told the packed courtroom.
The accused stood impassively with his hands behind his back, wearing a white police jumpsuit. He was calm as he was led away and is scheduled to return to court on May 10 for a bail hearing.
Two South Koreans were among the dead, a foreign ministry official in Seoul told AFP, adding that another of the country’s citizens seriously injured.
As the wounded recovered in local hospitals, federal, provincial and local investigators were probing the case, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said.
“Canadians across the country are shocked and saddened by this senseless attack,” Trudeau told a news conference.
But, he added: “We must not start living in fear and uncertainty every day as we go about our daily lives.”
– ‘Kill me’ –
Students who attended a Toronto vocational school with Minassian described him as withdrawn and a bit awkward.
The suspect lived with his father in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, and attended Seneca College, according to his LinkedIn social media profile.
Minassian kept mostly to himself at school, and seemed to constantly rub his head or hands — a possible sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), classmates told local media.
Ari Blaff, one of the students, told public broadcaster CBC that Minassian’s behavior “was usually quite strange.” But he’d “never noticed anything violent” — the suspect just “made people feel uneasy around him.”
Minassian, who has an imposing physical build, defied a police officer during his arrest.
Wielding an object in his left hand, standing near the van with its front end smashed, the suspect shouted “kill me” to the police officer with his gun drawn, according to an amateur video posted on social media.
The police officer approached the suspect, ordered him to kneel and then handcuffed him. The city’s police chief later said Minassian was unarmed.
Some 30 minutes earlier, panic had gripped the residential neighborhood along a long stretch of Yonge Street where the driver had jumped the curb onto the sidewalk.
“I heard screaming, yelling. I turned back and saw this truck going that way. He was going in and out, back and forth, zigzagging. He just kept on going,” said 42-year-old Rocco Cignielli.
“I saw there were people lying on the ground. I saw they were doing heart compressions, and I saw two people dying right here in front of me,” he told AFP, pointing at bodies lying under orange sheets.
On Tuesday, police continued to comb the crime scene for evidence, while crowds gathered at a makeshift memorial to leave messages of condolences and flowers.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was among those who stopped to leave flowers at the memorial, pausing to read cards left in remembrance of the dead.
“We must remain a country that is open and free and comfortable with its values, and we will continue to do that,” Trudeau said.
Officials will “reflect on the changing situations in which we are in, and do everything we can to keep Canadians safe,” he added.