France has been placed on maximum security alert following Thursday’s deadly attack by a knife-wielding man at a church in the southern city of Nice. The suspect, who was shot and hospitalised in a critical condition, has been identified as a 21-year-old Tunisian man who arrived in Europe just days before the attack, according to French investigators.
President Emmanuel Macron has called the knife attack, which killed three people, an “Islamist terrorist attack” and announced increased surveillance of churches by France’s Sentinelle military patrols, to be bolstered to 7,000 troops from 3,000.
Security at schools would also be boosted, he said.
“Quite clearly, it is France that is being attacked,” the president added, vowing the country “will not give up on our values”.
France has been the target of widespread anger in the Islamic world after Macron vowed to take the fight to radicals after an extremist beheaded history teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb on October 16 for having shown pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a free speech lesson.
Arriving at Nice station hours before attack
The assailant in the attack at the Basilica of Notre-Dame in Nice has been identified as a 21-year-old Tunisian migrant.
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-François Ricard said the suspect reached the Italian island of Lampedusa, a key landing point for migrants crossing in boats from North Africa, on September 20 and traveled to Paris on October 9.
Ricard did not specify when he arrived in Nice.
The prosecutor said the attacker was not on the radar of intelligence agencies as a potential threat.
Video cameras recorded the man entering the Nice train station at 6:47am, where he changed his shoes and turned his coat inside out before heading for the church, some 400 metres away, just before 8:30am.
Ricard said the attacker was carrying a copy of the Koran and two telephones. A knife with a 17-centimetre blade used in the attack was found near him along with a bag containing another two knives that were not used.
The attacker had spent some 30 minutes inside the church before police arrived via a side entrance and “after advancing down a corridor they came face-to-face with (the attacker) whom they neutralised”, Ricard said.
Witnesses heard the man crying “Allahu akbar”, or God is Greatest, as he advanced on police. Police initially used an electric gun then fired their service revolvers. Ricard said 14 bullet casings were found on the ground.
Gruesome scene inside church
Ricard detailed a gruesome scene inside the church where two of the victims died. A 60-year-old woman suffered “a very deep throat slitting, like a decapitation”, he said, and a 55-year-old man also suffered deep, fatal throat cuts. The third victim, a 44-year-old woman, managed to flee the church alive but died at a nearby restaurant.
The three were killed “only because they were in the church at that moment”, Ricard told reporters. He said investigators are looking for potential complicity in the “complex” probe.
An investigation was opened for murder and attempted murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise, a common term for such crimes.
The attack in Nice came amid a fierce debate in France and beyond over the re-publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed by French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
The French consulate in the Saudi city of Jeddah was also targeted Thursday, a man claiming allegiance to an anti-immigrant group was shot and killed by police in the southern French city of Avignon, and scattered confrontations were reported elsewhere, but it is unclear whether they were linked to the attack in Nice.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)