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Two U.K. government officials said the attack seemed to have been ideologically motivated by radical Islam, adding that the assessment was not based solely on video footage of one suspect making political statements against the British government. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the ongoing investigation.
Scotland Yard confirmed that counterterrorism officers were leading an investigation into the attack. Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said the two men had been arrested and urged Londoners to remain calm. Both were hospitalized, one in serious condition.
Late Wednesday, riot police fanned out in Woolwich as about 50 men waving the flag of the far-right English Defense League gathered, singing nationalistic songs and shouting obscenities about the Quran.
Muslim religious groups and charities were quick to condemn the attack and urged police to calm tensions. The Muslim Council of Britain called it a "barbaric act that has no basis in Islam," adding that "no cause justifies this murder."
The barracks where the attack took place house a number of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery and independent companies of the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards. They were the site of shooting events during the 2012 London Olympics.
Fred Oyat, 44, who lives in a high-rise nearby, said he heard four gun shots and went straight to the window.
"I saw one man lying there bleeding, another lying on the pavement being disarmed. A policeman was pointing a gun at him. A third man was lying further up the street. ... He was bleeding profusely," Oyat said. "There were four knives on the ground — big kitchen knives. The knives were very bloody."
David Dixon, head master at a nearby primary school, said he saw a body lying in the road outside. After making sure all students were inside, he quickly put the school into lockdown. He then heard shots fired, he told the BBC.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is called in when officers are involved in shootings, confirmed it was investigating the attack.
Witnesses recounted seeing the suspects — armed with meat cleavers and possibly a firearm — rushing toward police when officers arrived on the scene.
"He ran towards police before they could even get out of the car," Julia Wilders told Britain’s Press Association.
Graham Wilders said he saw one of the suspects pull out a handgun.
"He didn’t fire the gun," Wilders told the BBC. "They went for the police with a handgun. The police were the only ones who did any shooting."
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