Attack in Nice: 84 dead including many foreigners, 50 people 'between life and death', says Francois Hollande

Forensics officers and policemen look for evidences in a truck on the Promenade des Anglais seafront in Nice on July 15, 2016.
Forensics officers and policemen look for evidences in a truck on the Promenade des Anglais seafront in Nice on July 15, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

NICE (AFP, REUTERS) - French President Francois Hollande said Friday (July 15) that around 50 people were in a critical condition “between life and death” after a lorry ploughed into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice.

“As I speak 84 people are dead, and around 50 are in a critical condition between life and death,” he said in a speech after visiting a hospital in the French Riviera city. 

“There are French among the victims and also many foreigners from every continent and many children, young children,” said Hollande.

His comments came as the ex-wife of the man believed to have driven the truck into the crowd before being killed by police was held for questioning, a police source said.

Investigators are seeking to establish the motives of the suspect, 31-year-old Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, but are also looking for possible accomplices.

Paris' prosecutor later said that 10 children and teenagers were among the dead. He added that no one had yet claimed responsibility for the attack, and that investigations were ongoing as to whether the driver acted alone.

The Eiffel Tower will be lit in France’s national colours from Friday (July 15) in tribute to the victims, Paris city hall said.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls earlier said that flags would be flown at half-mast from Friday, and three days of national mourning would begin on Saturday.

NICE AIRPORT SHUTDOWN OVER UNATTENDED BAG

Earlier on Friday, Nice airport was briefly shut down after an unattended bag was discovered at Terminal 1, underscoring the level of alert in the city.

An official said it was a precautionary measure following the attack on the beach front Thursday night.

Police later allowed passengers back into the airport, with the situation being described as returning to normal.

SUSPECT SAID TO BE LONER BUT NOT RADICAL

Thursday's attack suspect was on Friday formally identified by police as Franco-Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel.

The 31-year-old, whose identity papers were found in the truck, was shot dead by police during the attack on Thursday.

Tunisian security forces said the suspect was from the Tunisian town of Msaken, about 10km outside the coastal city of Sousse, and last visited the place four years ago.

He was not known by the Tunisian authorities to hold radical or Islamist views, Tunisian security sources said.

He was married with three children, they said. The sources did not say when he had last been resident in Tunisia. 

Tunisia’s consul in Nice said one of the 84 victims of the attack had been identified as Tunisian national Bilal Labawi, and that officials were working to check for other Tunisian nationals among the casualties, state news agency TAP reported.  

The Tunisian government issued a statement condemning the attack “in the strongest possible terms”.

“Tunisia stands by France in its fight against terrorism and supports any measure taken by the French government to protect its territory and the security of its citizens and visitors,”the statement said.  

Like France, Tunisia has also suffered badly from militant Islamist attacks in recent years. On June 23, 2015, a gunman killed 38 people, mostly British holidaymakers, on a beach in Sousse, in an attack that dealt a heavy blow to its tourism industry, which accounts for 8 per cent of national output.

In a working-class neighbourhood of Nice, reporters interviewed about a dozen neighbours of the suspect as forensic experts searched his flat. They described him as a solitary figure who rarely spoke and did not even return greetings when their paths crossed in the four-storey block.  

Sebastien, a neighbour who spoke on condition that his full name was not used, said Lahouaiej-Bouhlel did not seem overtly religious, often dressed in shorts and sometimes wore work boots.  

He had a van parked nearby and owned a bike, which he brought up into his first-floor apartment.

Of those who were interviewed, only one, a neighbour on the ground floor, said she had had any concerns about him – he was “a good-looking man who kept giving my two daughters the eye”. 

Police investigators and forensic experts entered his apartment around 9.30am with an armed police intervention unit in support, and brought out bags of material later.  

 

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INTERPOL DEPLOYS TEAM TO NICE

At least 84 people were killed when the white 19-tonne truck slammed into the crowd on the Promenade des Anglais, Nice’s glitzy beachfront, as they gathered to watch a firework display on France’s national day.  

Police shot the driver dead after he drove the truck 2km through a crowd along the palm-lined Promenade des Anglais

A source close to the investigation said an “inactive” grenade was found inside the vehicle, as well as “several fake rifles.”

President Francois Hollande has declared the attack was of “an undeniable terrorist nature.”

“Investigations are currently underway to establish if the individual acted alone or if he had accomplices who might have fled,” interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said. Police sources said previously the attacker was already known to police for minor criminal offences.

Interpol said it had deployed an incident response team to Nice.  The France-based international police organisation said the team included terrorism and information specialists who would carry out real-time checks against its global databases.

The team also includes identification expertise to assist with the global coordination of so-called ante-mortem data collection to help with the identification process of victims, Interpol said. 

At least two children died at surgery and about 50 were hospitalised on Friday at a paediatric hospital close the scene of the attack, and others were “hanging between life and death,” a hospital official said.  

Around 50 children were being treated, the official said.

Many families were among the revellers who attended the fireworks display for France’s July 14 national holiday.

THREE DAYS OF MOURNING

France has declared three days of national mourning from Saturday (July 16), the prime minister said on Friday.  

Manuel Valls also told reporters that the government wants to extend the state of emergency which has been in force since the Nov 13 Paris attacks until October. 

The Eiffel Tower will be lit in France’s colours, city hall announced.

Meanwhile at the UN headquarters in New York, UN Security Council envoys observed a moment of silence on Friday for the victims. The council chamber fell silent as ambassadors rose to their feet and bowed their heads at the start of a meeting called to discuss the situation in Iraq.  

The 15-member council unanimously condemned the killings in a statement late Thursday, calling it a “barbaric and cowardly terrorist attack” and reaffirming that terrorism is one of the leading threats to world security.  

French Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters ahead of the meeting that there had been many expressions of support to France in the aftermath of the attack.  

“We are in state of shock, deep shock,” Delattre said.  “But at the same time the key word is determination, absolute determination in the fight against terrorism, both nationally and internationally.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov also offered their condolences at the French embassy in Moscow.  They laid flowers in front of the embassy building and wrote messages in a book of condolences.

Earlier Friday, the top diplomats held a minute’s silence for the victims ahead of talks on the Syria crisis.