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France on maximum alert after deadly church stabbing in Nice

·3-min read

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin on Friday warned of more attacks as the country was placed on maximum security alert following Thursday’s deadly attack by a knife-wielding man at the Basilica of Notre-Dame in the southern city of Nice.

“We are in a war against an enemy that is both inside and outside,” Darmanin told a French radio station. "We need to understand that there have been and there will be other events such as these terrible attacks.”

The suspect in Nice, who was shot and hospitalised in a critical condition, has been identified as a 21-year-old Tunisian man who arrived in Europe a little over a month before the attack, according to French investigators.

Three people were killed in the attack.

President Emmanuel Macron has called the deadly stabbing 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".

A 47-year-old man believed to have been in contact with the suspected knifeman has been detained for questioning, a judicial source said Friday.

From Lampedusa to Paris

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 weeks later.

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.

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.

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)