Hollande urges 'utmost vigilance' after weekend attacks in France

French President François Hollande (left) and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls leave the Elysee Palace after the weekly cabinet meeting on Dec 22, 2014 in Paris. -- PHOTO: AFP
French President François Hollande (left) and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls leave the Elysee Palace after the weekly cabinet meeting on Dec 22, 2014 in Paris. -- PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande called Monday on authorities to exercise the "utmost vigilance" as authorities probed the motives and profiles of two men who committed brutal weekend attacks against police and passers-by in separate towns while reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar”.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting, the president also urged the French not to "panic", government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told reporters.

The country is reeling from the violence, which saw a man killed Saturday when he assaulted police officers in the central town of Joue-les-Tours and a driver plough into pedestrians Sunday in Dijon in the east, leaving 13 injured in a scene one witness described as “apocalyptic.” Both men reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) – an Islamic phrase that has previously been used by extremists when waging violent attacks – prompting speculation the assaults were motivated by radical Islam.

But Hollande told a weekly cabinet meeting that people should not panic, calling on authorities to exercise “utmost vigilance”. Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll stressed that there was no link between the two incidents, warning against “lumping them together.”

In Saturday’s attack, Bertrand Nzohabonayo, a French convert to Islam who was born in Burundi, was shot dead after entering a police station in Joue-les-Tours armed with a knife, seriously wounding two officers – slashing one in the face – and hurting another. The assault prompted the government to step up security at police and fire stations nationwide.

Nzohabonayo had previously committed petty offences but was not on a domestic intelligence watch-list although his brother Brice is known for his radical views and once pondered going to Syria.

Brice was arrested in Burundi soon after the Saturday incident, intelligence services there said Monday. “He has been detained in our premises and he is being questioned,” intelligence spokesman Telesphore Bigirimana told AFP.

The anti-terror branch of the Paris prosecutor’s office quickly took over a probe into the attack amid heightened vigilance over potential “lone wolf” attacks by individuals heeding calls for violence by the Islamic State extremist group. The radical group has repeatedly singled out France for such attacks, most recently in a video posted on extremist sites.

Bertrand Nzohabonayo, who had taken the name Bilal when he converted to Islam, had posted a flag of the Islamic State group on his Facebook page Thursday, although people who knew him said at the weekend they refused to believe the attack was spurred by radical Islamism.

- Former psychiatric patient -

The second attack on Sunday also saw the assailant shout “Allahu Akbar", witnesses told police.  The driver targeted groups of passers-by at five different locations in Dijon in a rampage that lasted around half an hour, before being arrested.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who visited the town on Monday, said 13 people were injured in the rampage though none of the victims are critical.

Calling for “caution” and “restraint", he said the motives of the assailant had not yet been established.  A source close to the investigation told AFP that the man, born in 1974, was “apparently unbalanced and had been in a psychiatric hospital.”

A witness to his rampage, meanwhile, described an “apocalyptic scene.” “We were going home, we saw four people on the ground... who weren’t moving at all,” said the witness, who refused to be named.

“Cars stopped to give them first aid. Very quickly, firefighters and emergency medical workers arrived.”