A man with a gruesomely painted black-and-white face and armed with a knife went on a rampage at a Belgian day care center Friday, stabbing two babies and a worker to death and wounding 12 others, officials said.
Sobbing parents rushed to the scene and to nearby hospitals. Shocked rescue workers spoke of finding crying, bleeding toddlers scattered inside the center. Medical workers at six hospitals sprang into action, performing emergency operations to save the 10 children and two adults badly wounded in the attack.
"This was a particularly violent attack. All the kids had multiple stab wounds on their legs, arms, and all over their bodies," Dr. Ignace Demeyer, head of emergency services at Our Lady Hospital in nearby Aalst, told reporters.
The shocking assault caused panic and outrage in the town 20 miles northwest of Brussels, where the day care center sits on a residential street.
"An act of great brutality has happened here against our weakest citizens," said Mayor Buyse Piet. "The whole city is united in support for the parents who are in deep grief."
Prosecutor Christian Du Four said the attacker, a 20-year-old man, rode his bike to the Fabeltjesland day care center about 10 a.m., found it unlocked and went in.
"After he entered he started slashing at everyone he ran into ... the day care workers, the children," Du Four told a news conference.
He said the man wielded a nearly 8-inch knife and had painted his face white with black patches around the eyes.
One worker tried but failed to disarm the intruder and another female worker was stabbed to death, Du Four said. After the attack, the attacker walked out and got back on his bicycle. He was arrested in a nearby supermarket shortly afterward.
People responding to the emergency described a horrific scene.
Theo Janssens, a Dendermonde city councilor, arrived with first-aid workers. "The situation was horrible. There were blood-stained babies and staff workers everywhere," he said on the VRT television network.
Police had to show distraught parents digital photographs of those taken to the hospital, asking them to identify their children.
Demeyer said all the wounded needed surgery but by Friday night, all were in stable condition.
Nine of the 21 children at the center during the attack were unharmed, Demeyer said.
Du Four did not name the suspect but said he had no criminal record and was uncooperative under questioning. The man was to appear before a magistrate later Friday or on Saturday to be indicted.
Residents told The Associated Press the suspect was a local man with a history of mental illness.
Officials opened up a nearby community center to provide psychological counseling to family members and witnesses, and police cordoned off the area. Later Friday, Crown Prince Philippe and his wife Princess Mathilde met with relatives of the victims as well as traumatized first aid workers.
"People are totally in shock," said Leen Du Bois, a spokeswoman for the regional government of Flanders. "Nobody would have imagined anyone could do so much harm. There is much grief."
She said the perpetrator had no connection to the day care center.
Veerle Heeren, social welfare minister for the regional Flemish government, said she would be investigating security measures at the center.
Residents were flabbergasted, thinking at first that all the police sirens meant a repeat of the 2007 prison break at a nearby jail.
"(It's) something you hear about from America, not here," said bake shop owner Bie Hoornaert.