Knife-wielding man kills 3 in ‘Islamist terrorist attack’ at French church
Two women and a man were killed in decapitation attacks by a knife-wielding assailant who shouted “Allahu akbar!” at a church in the French city of Nice in what President Emmanuel Macron called an “Islamist terrorist attack” — one of three strikes targeting the country on Thursday.
Mayor Christian Estrosi said on Twitter the vile attack occurred at the Notre Dame Basilica in the Mediterranean city and that police had detained the assailant.
Estrosi described the assailant as a “terrorist” who shouted “Allahu akbar!” — Arabic for “God is great” — repeatedly as police collared him.
“The meaning of his gesture left no doubt,” the mayor said.
Two people were killed inside the church — a woman in her 70s who was “almost beheaded” after coming in to pray and a 45-year-old sacristan known as Vincent L who was decapitated, according to the Daily Mail.
The third victim — a woman of African origin in her 30s — managed to flee to a nearby bar after being stabbed several times, but died of her injuries later, the news outlet reported.
No Mass was underway at the time of the attack, but the church opens at about 8 a.m. and “people come in to pray at all hours,” the Rev. Philippe Asso, who serves at the church, told the outlet.
Macron, who rushed to Nice, announced increased surveillance of churches by France’s Sentinelle military patrols, which would be bolstered to 7,000 troops from 3,000, according to Agence France-Presse.
“Quite clearly, it is France that is being attacked,” he said. “If we are attacked, it is because of our values.”
Police sources said the suspect gave his name as “Brahim” and his age as 25, but his identity had not yet been confirmed.
A video posted online captured the moment police ran inside the church — less than a half-mile from the site where another attacker plowed a truck into a Bastille Day crowd, killing 86 people, on July 14, 2016.
“The suspected knife attacker was shot by police while being detained, he is on his way to hospital, he is alive,” the mayor told reporters Thursday.
The assailant was believed to have been acting alone and police are not searching for other suspects, a police official said.
It emerged later that someone had managed to sound the alarm with a special protection system set up by the city, the BBC reported.
Daniel Conilh, 32, a waiter at the Grand Café de Lyon near the church, said it was shortly before 9 a.m. when “shots were fired and everybody took off running.”
“A woman came in straight from the church and said, ‘Run! Run! Someone has been stabbing people,’” he told AFP, and dozens of police and rescue vehicles quickly sealed off the area.
The horrific incident coincided with two other attacks targeting France.
A Saudi man was arrested in Jeddah after attacking a guard with a “sharp tool” at the French consulate, state media reported. The Saudi Press Agency offered no motive for the attack.
“The assailant was apprehended by Saudi security forces immediately after the attack. The guard was taken to hospital and his life is not in danger,” the embassy said in a statement.
And in southern France, police shot and killed a man in Montfavet, near the city of Avignon, after he had earlier threatened passers-by with a handgun, police said. According to radio station Europe 1, he shouted, “Allahu akbar!”
“Enough is enough,” Estrosi added, according to Agence France-Presse. “It’s time now for France to exonerate itself from the laws of peace in order to definitively wipe out Islamo-fascism from our territory.”
He said on Twitter: “Everything points to a terrorist attack.”
Estrosi said the victims had been killed in a “horrible way.”
“The methods match, without doubt, those used against the brave teacher in Conflans Sainte Honorine, Samuel Paty,” he said, referring to a teacher beheaded in a recent attack in Paris by a Chechen man, Abdullakh Anzorov, 18, as punishment for showing students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said he was chairing a crisis meeting in response to Thursday’s attack, according to CNN.
The anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office said it has launched an investigation into the attack.
France has been on high alert for terror attacks since the January 2015 massacre at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. The trial of suspected accomplices in that attack is underway in Paris.
It was not immediately clear what the motive was behind the Nice attack, or if there was any connection to the cartoons, which Muslims deem blasphemous.
Thursday’s attack prompted lawmakers in parliament to hold a minute of silence, before Prime Minister Jean Castex and other ministers left for an emergency meeting with President Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to head to the city.
Castex told lawmakers that the country would raise its alert level to “emergency” in response to the attack — hours before the country was to go into a one-month coronavirus lockdown.
A wave of jihadist attacks, often by so-called “lone wolf” assailants, has killed more than 250 people in France since 2015.
The latest attack drew condemnation from France’s allies, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel voicing solidarity with France and EU Parliament President David Sassoli saying: “This pain is felt by all of us in Europe.
“We have a duty to stand together against violence and those that seek to incite and spread hatred,” he said on Twitter.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte condemned the “vile attack” but vowed it “will not shake the common front defending the values of freedom and peace.”
Abdallah Zekri, director general of the French Council of Muslim Worship, said: “I can only denounce as strongly as possible this act of cowardice against the innocent.”
He called on French Muslims to cancel festivities to mark the Mawlid, or the Prophet’s Birthday, which ends Thursday, “in solidarity with the victims and their loved ones.”
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