British forensic officers at work at the scene of the brutal attack that… (Alastair Grant / Associated…)
LONDON — As bystanders watched in horror, a man was hacked to death in broad daylight on a London street Wednesday and two suspects were shot and wounded by police, who are investigating the incident as a likely terrorist attack.
The two assailants, who reportedly shouted "God is great!" in Arabic as they mounted their assault, set upon a young man near a military barracks in the southeast London neighborhood of Woolwich, police said. The attackers slashed their victim to death with knives or machete-like weapons, then advanced menacingly on officers, who shot them, according to witness accounts.
"There are strong indications that it is a terrorist incident," said British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called it a "most appalling crime."
"We have had these sorts of attacks before in our country, and we never buckle in the face of them."
Cameron cut short a visit to mainland Europe after the assault. He is scheduled to chair a meeting Thursday morning of his Cabinet's emergency response committee, indicating the high level of concern with which the government is treating the attack.
After an initial meeting Wednesday evening, the committee said the government would step up security near military installations in London. But officials have so far declined to confirm reports that the dead man was a soldier based at the barracks of the Royal Artillery, a fenced-in compound a stone's throw from where the assault occurred.
Late Wednesday night, riot police gathered to guard against violence by protesters with the far-right, anti-Muslim English Defense League who converged on the attack site.
The two suspects remained hospitalized. Detectives are eager to question them to determine whether the attack was in fact an act of Islamic terrorism and, if so, whether the men were rogue extremists working on their own or affiliated with a terrorist group such as Al Qaeda.
The British television network ITV broadcast video Wednesday evening of what it said was one of the suspects holding a knife and a machete or cleaver in his bloodied hands and ranting to the person filming him, a passerby who had just gotten off a bus, the network said.
"I apologize that women had to witness this today. But in our lands, our women have to see the same," the man says in British-accented English. "You people will never be safe! Remove your government. They don't care about you."
It was unclear what lands he meant.
The network said that the assailant also declared, "We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you."
The attack took place about 2:20 p.m. Witnesses told local news media that the suspects rammed their car into a man on a street by the barracks, knocking him over, then jumped out and began viciously hacking at him on the ground with knives as if he were a "piece of meat."
Scotland Yard said bystanders called in reports of two men wielding numerous weapons, including machetes and possibly a firearm.
The victim was reportedly wearing a shirt advertising "Help for Heroes," a well-known charity for veterans. Witnesses said the attackers filmed themselves during their savage assault and dragged the man's inert body into the street.
Oddly, the two men lingered at the site but did not turn their weapons on anyone else, even though the area was full of passersby, according to witnesses.
When police arrived on the scene, at least one of the suspects approached in a threatening manner, causing officers to open fire, witnesses said. The victim lay still on the ground; he was later pronounced dead, said Cmdr. Simon Letchford of Scotland Yard.
Although preliminary indications pointed strongly to a militant attack, officials appealed to residents to refrain from making premature judgments.
"It is really far too early for us to draw conclusions," said Mayor Boris Johnson, who described the attack as "a sickening and unforgivable act of violence."
Britain has seen rogue plots and assaults before. In 2008, a charity worker who had become radicalized was sentenced to life in prison for sending supplies to Islamic militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for plotting to kidnap a British soldier and behead him on camera.
Last month, six men pleaded guilty to planning a terrorist assault that failed only because the intended target, a far-right rally, ended early, before the would-be attackers arrived. Also last month, three Muslim extremists received lengthy prison sentences for plotting a bombing campaign that they hoped would rival the 2005 attack on London's transit system, in which 52 people died.
The Muslim Council of Britain condemned Wednesday's attack as "a truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam.... Muslims have long served in this country's armed forces, proudly and with honor."
Cameron said the government would examine "every aspect" of security around British military installations.
"But we also have to remember that in a free country like ours, the best way to defeat terrorism is to make sure that you continue to go about your life, to live your life and to show that terrorists can never win," he said in Paris, before returning to Britain. "That's important."