LONDON -- As bystanders watched in horror, two assailants allegedly hacked a man to death in broad daylight on a London street Wednesday before being shot and wounded by police, who are investigating the incident as a likely terrorist attack.
The two suspects, 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 allegedly 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 Prime Minister David Cameron, who called it a "most appalling crime." He added: "We have had these sorts of attacks before in our country, and we never buckle in the face of them."
Mr. Cameron cut short a visit to mainland Europe after the assault. He is scheduled to chair a meeting this 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 night, the committee announced that the government would step up security near London military installations. 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 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-Qaida.
The British television network ITV broadcast footage Wednesday evening of what it said was one of the alleged attackers 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 not clear what lands he meant. The network said the assailant also declared: "We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you."
The attack happened about 2:20 p.m. Witnesses told local media that the suspects rammed their car into their victim on a street by the barracks, knocked 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 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 passers-by, 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 jihadist 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 in the past. 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 terms 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."