British Prime Minister David Cameron this morning denounced right-wing riots and attacks on mosques as “knee-jerk responses” to the brutal knife attack apparently committed by two men on a London street yesterday as the attack was still being investigated. After an emergency meeting of COBRA, the government’s crisis response committee, Cameron issued a statement in which he emphasized that “This was not just an attack on Britain – and on our British way of life. It was also a betrayal of Islam – and of the Muslim communities who are give so much to our country.”
Hours after news broke that a man believed to be a British soldier had been attacked and killed by two men wielding meat cleavers and knives in London, right-wing extremists had taken to the streets. More than 100 activists from the far right-wing group, the English Defense League (EDL), demonstrated in Woolwich, the area of London where the attack occurred, in retaliation to the perceived Islamic-extremism that allegedly prompted the attack.
Details about the two assailants – who were both shot by armed police officers who arrived on the scene 20 minutes after the heinous attack and are currently under arrest at the hospitals where they are being treated – were still scant the morning after the attack. Government and police statements had indicated early on that they regarded the crime as an act of terrorism. Adding to the horror was disturbing footage taken at the scene of the crime that revealed one of the alleged attackers, covered in blood and still holding a bloodied meat cleaver and knife, discussing the attack. “We swear to you, by the almighty Allah, we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone,” he’s heard to say on the film.
The video and the subsequent fear likely prompted the leader of the EDL, Tommy Robinson, to send out a request via Twitter for “feet on the streets” of Woolwich – a request that many heeded. As the crowd in Woolwich grew on Wednesday night, with some protesters wearing balaclavas and others throwing glass bottles, police in riot gear attempted to quell the disturbance.
Elsewhere in Britain, separate attacks on mosques were reported. A man in Essex was arrested on suspicion of possession of a weapon and attempted arson, after allegedly walking into a mosque with a knife. A mosque in Kent was also reportedly vandalized and a man was arrested on suspicion of racially aggravated criminal damage.
But amidst the anger and fear that surrounded the attack on Wednesday, an unlikely hero emerged. A widely-circulated photograph showed one of the first bystanders on the scene, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, as she bravely approached the alleged attackers in order to prevent more carnage. A 48-year-old mother-of-two and a cub scout leader, Loyau-Kennett was on a bus that stopped as the scene in Woolwich was unfolding. She quickly got off the bus to see if she could be of any help to the man on the ground, before she gently confronted the other men at the scene.
Loyau-Kennett described approaching one of the alleged attackers – before turning to his partner — in an interview with the Guardian:
“He said it was a war and if the police were coming, he was going to kill them. I asked him if that was a reasonable thing to do but it was clear that he really wanted to do that. He talked about war but he did not talk about dying and then he left to speak to someone else. I went to speak to the other man who was quieter and more shy. I asked him if he wanted to give me what he was holding in his hand, which was a knife but I didn’t want to say that. He didn’t agree and I asked him: ‘Do you want to carry on?’ He said: ‘No, no, no.’ I didn’t want to upset him and then the other man came back to me. I asked him what he wanted to do next. At that point, there were so many people around that I didn’t want him to get scared or agitated. I kept talking to him to keep him occupied.”
Meanwhile, local Woolwich residents – still reeling from the yesterday’s events – are waiting for answers. One resident, Eugene Osioh had just finished work at a local supermarket when his sister called him to tell him the news of the attack. “It’s unbelievable,” says the 31-year-old, who lives in the district, a few minutes’ walk from where the attack happened. “It’s a quiet neighborhood. I never thought something of this magnitude would happen. It’s very, very shocking – this place is peaceful.”
Click here to read Catherine Mayer’s in-depth TIME International cover story on British Prime Minister David Cameron, available exclusively for TIME subscribers.
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