A missing imam, a van driver and a house that exploded days ago have become the focus of the investigation into an extremist cell responsible for two deadly attacks in Barcelona and a nearby resort.

A mattress lies on the floor in an apartment where neighbours said an Imam lived after the police raided and searched the flat in Ripoll, north of Barcelona, Spain, Saturday on Aug. 19, 2017.
A mattress lies on the floor in an apartment where neighbours said an Imam lived after the police raided and searched the flat in Ripoll, north of Barcelona, Spain, Saturday on Aug. 19, 2017. (AP)

Spanish police on Saturday continued the hunt for a Moroccan man suspected of carrying out one of two terror attacks that killed 15 people, injured 120 more and plunged the country into shock and grief.

As investigators scrambled to piece together the attacks, Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido said the cell behind the carnage had been "dismantled," though local authorities took a more cautious tone.

Police said they had cast a dragnet for 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub, who media reports say was the driver of a van that smashed into people on Barcelona's busy Las Ramblas boulevard on Thursday.

In Catalonia, police said on their Twitter feed that they searched the buses in Girona and Garrigas, towns in the northwest of Catalonia, but the operation yielded nothing of importance. 

They provided no further information.

TRT World's Sarah Morice reports.

Terror cell

Investigators are focusing on Moroccan-led terror cell, reportedly comprised at least 12 young men, some of them teenagers, believed to be behind the twin terror attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils that killed 15 and wounded around 100.

Hours after the Barcelona carnage, a similar attack struck in the seaside town of Cambrils early Friday. Police shot and killed the five attackers in Cambrils, some of whom were wearing fake explosive belts.

Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack, believed to be its first in Spain.

Manhunt

Investigators have been homing in on the small town of Ripoll, at the foot of the Pyrenees, where many of the suspects – including Abouyaaqoub – lived.

On Saturday, police raided the apartment of an imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, according to his flatmate who gave his name only as Nourddem. 

Neighbours said Satty was an imam, a Muslim prayer leader. His landlord said he had last been seen on Tuesday.

But Spanish daily El Pais, quoting police sources, said the imam might have been one of those killed in an explosion in a home in Alcanar, about 200 kilometres (120 miles) south of Barcelona, where the alleged jihadists were believed to have been building bombs.

A waiter at a Ripoll cafe claimed he had served beers to some of the suspects numerous times, most recently just two days ago.

Most of the suspects are children of Moroccan immigrants, including Ripoll-born Moussa Oukabir, 17, one of five suspects shot dead in the Cambrils attack. His older brother, Driss, counts among the four arrested.

Two other Moroccans and a citizen of Spain's North African enclave of Melilla have been arrested so far in connection with the attacks.

Larger attack in the works

Police said they believed the suspects were planning a much larger attack.

“They were preparing one or several attacks in Barcelona, and an explosion in Alcanar stopped this as they no longer had the material they needed to commit attacks of an even bigger scope,” said Josep Lluis Trapero of Catalonia’s police.

Security forces were seen removing dozens of gas canisters from the house in Alcanar on Friday.

And as the hunt for Abouyaaqoub gathered pace, a white van linked to the attacks was found in Spain, said French authorities, who had earlier been warned by their Spanish colleagues that the vehicle may have crossed into France.

Special mass held for victims

Grief-stricken Barcelona paid homage on Sunday to victims of the two assaults at a special mass held in the city's Sagrada Familia church.

King Felipe, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalonia's president Carles Puigdemont led the ceremony mourning the 14 people killed by attackers who used vehicles to mow down pedestrians in Barcelona's Las Ramblas Boulevard on Thursday and in the nearby seaside resort of Cambrils early Friday.

"These have been days of tears, many tears," said auxiliary bishop Sebastia Taltavull.

Outside the church, snipers were posted on rooftops surrounding the landmark building by Gaudi, while heavily armed police stood guard as hundreds of people gathered under grey skies.

Catalonia resident Teresa Rodriguez said she had turned up to pray for the victims.

"What happened in Las Ramblas is really hard for us, we go for walks there often, it could have happened to me, my children or anyone. And here we are. It's huge, huge," she said as she fought back tears.

Later Sunday, nearly 100,000 people were expected at Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium for their team's first game of the season, to be marked by a minute of silence for the victims.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies