France on 'emergency' footing after man kills 3 at church

2020-10-30 03:20:23 GMT2020-10-30 11:20:23(Beijing Time) Sina English

A knife-wielding man killed three people at a church in southern France on Thursday, practically beheading a 60-year-old woman in what President Emmanuel Macron called an "Islamist terrorist attack."

The 21-year-old Tunisian migrant, who had a copy of the Koran and three knives with him, shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) when approached by police who shot and seriously wounded him, France's anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard told a press conference.

In a near half-hour frenzy in the Notre-Dame basilica in the center of Nice, the assailant used a knife of 30 centimeters to cut the throat of a 60-year-old woman so deep that he practically beheaded her, said Ricard. She died inside the church.

The body of a man, a 55-year-old church employee, was found nearby inside the basilica, his throat also slit.

Another woman, a 44-year-old who had fled the church to a nearby restaurant, died shortly afterward from multiple knife wounds.

The victims were "people targeted for the sole reason that they were present in this church at that moment," said Ricard.

The attack, he added, was a reminder that "the deadly ideology of Islamist terrorism is very much alive."

Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi told journalists at the scene the attacker "kept repeating 'Allahu Akbar' even while under medication" as he was taken to hospital.

Police prevented 'higher toll'

Ricard said the attacker was a Tunisian, born in 1999, who arrived in Italy on September 20, and then in France on October 9.

In a bag he had left at the scene, investigators found two unused knives, and the prosecutor said police who shot him had "without any doubt prevented an even higher toll."

The killings, which occurred ahead of the Catholic holy day of All Saints Day on Sunday, prompted the government to raise the terror alert level to the maximum "emergency" level nationwide.

Churches across France sounded death knells, the traditional bell toll to mark a death, at 3pm.

French members of the elite tactical police unit RAID enter to search the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice as forensics officers wait after a knife attack in Nice on October 29. 

School security boosted

Macron, who quickly traveled to Nice, 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 the October 16 beheading of a history teacher by an extremist for having shown pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a free speech lesson.

But some claim Macron is unfairly targeting France's estimated 5 to 6 million Muslims — the largest community in Europe.

Several Muslim-majority countries have launched campaigns to boycott French products, while protesters burnt the French flag and posters of Macron as demonstrations were held in Syria, Libya, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories.

Macron on Thursday urged people of all religions to unite and not "give in to the spirit of division."

France on edge

Daniel Conilh, a 32-year-old waiter at Nice's Grand Cafe de Lyon, a block from the church, said it was shortly before 9am 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.

French anti-terror prosecutors are handling the inquiry into charges related to a "terrorist murder."

France has been on high alert since the January 2015 massacre at the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo marked the beginning of a wave of jihadist attacks that have killed more than 250 people.