Knifeman Kills Three at French Church, Ratcheting up Terror Fears

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French police at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice
French police at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice in southern France on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020 when a knifeman killed three people. (Valery HACHE/AFP)

A knife-wielding man killed three people at a church in the French city of Nice on Thursday, slitting the throat of at least one of them, in what officials are treating as the latest jihadist attack to rock the country.

The assailant was shot and wounded by police, Nice's Mayor Christian Estrosi said.

"He kept repeating 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Greater) even while under medication" as he was brought to the hospital, Estrosi told journalists, a claim later confirmed by police sources.

Police found the body of a woman whose throat had been cut in an apparent beheading attempt inside the Basilica of Notre-Dame, in the heart of the Mediterranean resort city, a source close to the inquiry said.

The body of a man was also found inside, while a third person succumbed to injuries after seeking refuge in a nearby bar.

Father Philippe Asso, who serves at the Notre-Dame's basilica, said that no mass was underway at the time of the attack, but the church opens around 8am (0700 GMT) and "people come in to pray at all hours."

He told AFP that one victim was a church employee of about 45 years old.

The apparent decapitation attempt comes just days after thousands rallied across France in solidarity with a teacher beheaded for having shown pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

The latest attack, just days ahead of the Catholic holy day of All Saints Day, prompted Prime Minister Jean Castex to raise the terror alert level to maximum across the country.

Police sources said the suspect gave his name as "Brahim" and his age as 25, but his identity had yet to be confirmed.

Daniel Conilh, a 32-year-old waiter at the 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, and dozens of police and rescue vehicles quickly sealed off the neighborhood.

French anti-terror prosecutors have opened an inquiry into what Estrosi called an "Islamo-fascist attack."

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

But tensions have heightened since last month, when the trial opened for 14 suspected accomplices in that attack.

The paper marked the start of the court proceedings by republishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that infuriated millions of Muslims worldwide.

Just days later, an 18-year-old man from Pakistan seriously injured two people with a meat cleaver outside Charlie Hebdo's former offices in Paris.

'Act of cowardice'

In Nice, painful memories remain fresh of a jihadist attack during Bastille Day fireworks on July 14, 2016, when a man rammed his truck into a crowded promenade, killing 86 people.

Just a few days later, two teenagers murdered an 85-year-old priest as he conducted mass at his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in northern France, an attack later claimed by the Islamic State group.

Thursday's attack drew condemnation from France's allies, with Germany's Angela Merkel saying she was "deeply shaken" 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.

Abdallah Zekri, director general of the French Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM), said: "I can only denounce as strongly as possible this act of cowardice against the innocent."

Zekri 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."

Estrosi meanwhile called for churches around the country to be given added security or to be closed as a precaution.

Tensions high

The attack comes with tensions heightened following the killing of history teacher Samuel Paty by 18-year-old Chechen Abdullakh Anzorov, who committed the gruesome crime outside Paty's school in a Paris suburb on October 16 after the teacher was denounced by angry parents on social media.

His murder prompted Macron to promise a crackdown in Islamic extremism, including shutting down mosques and organisations accused of fomenting radicalism and violence.

But the move has inflamed tensions with many Muslims saying Macron is unfairly targeting France's estimated five to six million Muslims -- the largest community in Europe.

Protests against France have erupted in several Muslim countries, with some urging a boycott of French goods, and tensions have flared in particular between Macron and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey's foreign ministry said it strongly condemned the attack in Nice, offering "solidarity with the French people".

This article was written by Vincent-Xavier MORVAN with Sylvie MALIGORNE in Paris from Agence France Presse and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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