Paris, 29 October 2020 (dpa/MIA) – Three people were killed on Thursday inside a church in Nice, southern France, in what President Emmanuel Macron said was “a terrorist, Islamist attack.”
The attack, which was quickly condemned in France and around the world, came only two weeks after a schoolteacher who had used caricatures of the prophet Mohammed in a lesson was beheaded in a Paris suburb by a suspected Islamist.
Macron, who had promised to intensify a planned crackdown on all forms of Islamism after the teacher’s killing, said that France was “being attacked” and vowed to protect places of worship.
Church bells rang out across the country in the afternoon to commemorate the victims, while France’s main Islamic religious body called on Muslims to cancel celebrations for the prophet’s birthday as a sign of mourning.
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi said that the attacker was shot and injured by local police who were quickly called to the scene at the Mediterranean city’s Basilica of Notre Dame.
The attacker “kept repeating ‘Allahu Akbar’ [Arabic for ‘God is most great’] in front of us while he was receiving treatment,” and left no doubt about “the meaning of his action,” Estrosi told press.
The suspected attacker was born in Tunisia in 1999, dpa has learned.
It was “very clearly” France that was “being attacked,” Macron said in a short, sombre statement after speaking to officials and police officers in Nice.
He noted that other arrests had been made during the day and that a guard at the French consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia had been injured in an attack.
The president promised “the support of the whole nation to the Catholics of France and elsewhere.”
The number of soldiers deployed for domestic anti-terrorism duties would be more than doubled from 3,000 to 7,000, and churches would be protected to ensure that the feast of All Hallows on Sunday could be properly celebrated, Macron said.
Public broadcaster FranceInfo reported that one of the victims, an elderly woman, had been “almost decapitated.”
Estrosi did not confirm that in as many words, but said that she had been attacked “with the same method” as the slain schoolteacher earlier in the month.
Anti-terrorism prosecutors in Paris said they were taking over the investigation and treating the incident as terrorist murder.
Chief anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard was due to make a statement to press at 9 pm (2000 GMT).
Nice was the scene of one of France’s worst recent terrorist attacks, when a man rammed a lorry through crowds celebrating Bastille Day in 2016 on the seaside Promenade des Anglais, killing 86.
In total, Islamist attacks have claimed more than 250 lives in France since 2015.
The city was paying “far too high a price” for “Islamofascism,” Estrosi said.
France’s Catholic bishops asked the faithful to pray for the victims, saying that the killings “recall the martyrdom of Father Jacques Hamel,” who was killed by Islamists in his Normandy church while celebrating mass in July 2016.
Meanwhile, a man was shot by police in the southern city of Avignon after threatening passers-by, apparently with a handgun, and refusing to drop the weapon, a police source said. However, the source said it was not thought to be a terrorist incident.
In Lyon, police arrested an Afghan national known to security services who was carrying a knife after passers-by raised the alarm. There were no injuries and there was no immediate indication that the incident was linked to the Nice attack.
Condolences and condemnations poured in from around the world, with Italy saying that it stood with France “in the fight against terrorism and all violent radicalism.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that “all Europe” was in solidarity in France, while Russia’s Vladimir Putin said that the “cynical and cruel crime committed within the walls of a church” provoked “particular indignation.”
“Those who conducted such a savage attack in a sacred place of worship clearly share no religious, humane or moral values,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Vatican said that Pope Francis was praying for an end to violence and “that the beloved people of France, united, may respond to evil with good.”