NICE, France (AP) — A young Tunisian man armed with a knife and carrying a copy of the Quran attacked worshippers in a French church and killed three Thursday, prompting the government to raise its security alert to the maximum level hours before a nationwide coronavirus lockdown.
The attack in Mediterranean city of Nice was the third in less than two months that French authorities have attributed to Muslim extremists, including the beheading of a teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class after the images were re-published by a satirical newspaper targeted in a 2015 attack.
Thursday’s attacker was seriously wounded by police and hospitalized in life-threatening condition after the killings at the Notre Dame Basilica. The imposing edifice is located half a mile (less than a kilometer) from the site where another attacker plowed a truck into a crowd on France’s national day in 2016, killing dozens.
President Emmanuel Macron said he would immediately increase the number of soldiers deployed to protect schools and religious sites from around 3,000 to 7,000.
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said the suspect is a Tunisian born in 1999 who reached the Italian island of Lampedusa, a key landing point for migrants crossing in boats from North Africa, on Sept. 20 and traveled to Bari, a port city in southern Italy, on Oct. 9. Prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard did not specify when he arrived in Nice.
In Tunisia, the anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office said an investigation was being opened on the “suspected commission of a terrorist crime by a Tunisian … outside national borders,,” the official TAP news agency quoted the prosecutor’s office as saying.
The French prosecutor said the attacker was not on the radar of intelligence agencies as a potential threat.
Video cameras recorded the man entering the Nice train station at 6:47 a.m., where he changed his shoes and turned his coat inside out before heading for the church, some 400 meters away, just before 8:30 a.m.
Ricard said the attacker was carrying a copy of Islam’s holy book and two telephones. A knife with a 17-centimeter blade used in the attack was found near him along with a bag containing another two knives that were not used in the attack.
He had spent some 30 minutes inside the church before police arrived via a side entrance and “after advancing down a corridor they came face-to-face with (the attacker) whom they neutralized,” Ricard said.
Witnesses heard the man crying ”Allahu Akbar” as he advanced on police. Police initially used an electric gun then fired their service revolvers. Ricard said 14 bullet casings were found on the ground.