France raised the security alert for French territory to the highest level on Thursday after a knifeman murdered three people at a church, beheading at least one of them in what was described as a terror attack in the city of Nice.
Prime Minister Jean Castex, who made the announcement at Parliament, called the attack “as cowardly as it is barbaric”.
President Emmanuel Macron, who visited the site of the attack, vowed that “France will not give up on our values” as he urged people of all religions to unite and not “give in to the spirit of division”.
Meanwhile, French police arrested a man armed with a long knife in the south-eastern French city of Lyon yesterday as he was about to board a tram. The suspect, an Afghan national in his 20s who was dressed in traditional Afghan clothes, “seemed ready to take action”, Mr Pierre Oliver, the mayor of Lyon’s Second Arrondissement said.
In Montfavet, near the city of Avignon, police said they shot dead a man who had earlier threatened passers-by with a handgun. According to French radio station Europe 1, the man had shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest).
Similarly, the Nice assailant had repeatedly shouted “‘Allahu Akbar’ even while under medication” after he was injured during his arrest, the city’s mayor Christian Estrosi said. The Nice attacker has been identified as Brahim Aoussaoui, a 21-year-old Tunisian who arrived in Europe late last month.
A man and a woman died at the Basilica of Notre-Dame, in the heart of the Mediterranean resort city, while a third person died from injuries after seeking refuge in a nearby bar, a police source told AFP.
The dead man was the church’s sacristan, who had opened up the doors around 8.30am. The first mass of the day was not due to start for another two hours. But soon after the 45-year-old started work, a man armed with a knife entered the church and slit his throat, beheaded an elderly woman and badly wounded another woman, police said.
French anti-terror prosecutors have opened an inquiry into what Mr Estrosi called an “Islamo-fascist attack”. The attack comes while France is still reeling from the beheading earlier this month of French middle school of teacher Samuel Paty by a man of Chechan origin.
The attacker had said he wanted to punish Mr. Paty for showing pupils cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a civics lesson.
Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, a Saudi citizen wounded a guard in a knife attack at the French consulate in the city of Jeddah yesterday. “The assailant was apprehended by Saudi security forces immediately after the attack. The guard was taken to hospital and his life is not in danger,” the French Embassy in Riyadh said in a statement.
European governments have come out in support of France, with leaders from Germany, Italy and the Netherlands publicly expressing their solidarity with President Macron.