France raises security alert to highest level after knifeman kills 3 in church

French President Emmanuel Macron (second from left) visits the scene of a reported knife attack at Notre Dame church in Nice, France, on Oct 29, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron (second from left) visits the scene of a reported knife attack at Notre Dame church in Nice, France, on Oct 29, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Security forces guard the area after a reported knife attack at Notre Dame church in Nice, France.
Security forces guard the area after a reported knife attack at Notre Dame church in Nice, France.PHOTO: REUTERS
French police officers stand at the entrance of the Notre Dame Basilica church in Nice, France.
French police officers stand at the entrance of the Notre Dame Basilica church in Nice, France.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi talks to Municipal Police at the site of the attack.
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi talks to Municipal Police at the site of the attack.PHOTO: REUTERS
A woman kneels by a police car as she cries in the streets after a knife attack in Nice, France.
A woman kneels by a police car as she cries in the streets after a knife attack in Nice, France.PHOTO: AFP
French policemen and soldiers stand guard a street after a knife attack in Nice, France.
French policemen and soldiers stand guard a street after a knife attack in Nice, France.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS/NICE (REUTERS, AFP) - A knife-wielding Tunisian man shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) beheaded a woman and killed two other people in a church in the French city of Nice before being shot and taken away by police on Thursday (Oct 29).

French President Emmanuel Macron said France would deploy thousands more soldiers to protect important sites such as places of worship and schools. The nation’s security alert was raised to its highest level.

Speaking outside the church, Mr Macron said France had been attacked “over our values, for our taste for freedom, for the ability on our soil to have freedom of belief... And I say it with great clarity again today: We will not give any ground”.

Chief anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean Francois Ricard later said the suspect was a Tunisian man born in 1999 who had arrived in Europe on Sept 20 in Lampedusa, the Italian island off Tunisia that is the main landing point for migrants from Africa.

A Tunisian security source and a French police source named the suspect as Brahim Aouissaoui.

Mr Ricard told a news conference in Nice that the man had entered the city by train early on Thursday morning and made his way to the church, where he stabbed and killed the 55-year-old sexton and beheaded a 60-year-old woman.

He also stabbed a 44-year-old woman who escaped to a restaurant nearby where she died minutes later, Mr Ricard said, before police arrived and confronted the attacker, still shouting “Allahu Akbar”, and shot and wounded him.

“On the attacker we found a Quran and two telephones, the knife of the crime – 30cm with a cutting edge of 17cm. We also found a bag left by the attacker. Next to this bag were two knives that were not used in the attack,” Ricard said.

The suspect is in hospital in critical condition, he said.

Meanwhile, French police arrested a man armed with a long knife in the south-eastern French city of Lyon on Thursday 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”. 

Tunisia’s specialised counter-militancy court spokesman Mohsen Dali told Reuters that Aouissaoui was not listed by police there as a suspected militant.

He said Aouissaoui left the country on Sept 14 by boat, adding that Tunisia had begun its own forensic investigation into the case.

The attack comes while France is still reeling from the beheading earlier this month of French middle school teacher Samuel Paty by a man of Chechen origin. 

The attacker had said he wanted to punish Mr Paty for showing students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a civics lesson.  

Thursday’s attacks, on the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, came at a time of growing Muslim anger at France’s defence of the right to publish the cartoons, and protesters have denounced France in street rallies in several Muslim-majority countries.

Since Mr Paty’s killing, French officials – backed by many ordinary citizens – have re-asserted the right to display the cartoons, and the images have been widely displayed at marches in solidarity with the killed teacher. 

At a memorial service for Mr Paty on Wednesday last week, Mr Macron said that France would not “give up” the caricatures and pledged to tackle extreme Islamism in the country, which outraged many Muslim-majority countries, with some governments accusing Mr Macron of pursuing an anti-Islam agenda.

Protests have erupted in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq, Gaza and Turkey.

In Saudi Arabia, a Saudi citizen wounded a guard in a knife attack at the French consulate in the city of Jeddah on Thursday. 

“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.

Malaysia has said it strongly condemned “provocative acts” that would defame Islam while Indonesia’s Vice-President Ma’ruf Amin decried Mr Macron’s comments that “generalises Muslims”.

But European governments have come out in support of France, with leaders from Germany, Italy and the Netherlands publicly expressing their solidarity with Mr Macron.