PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to protect schools and places of worship in addition to doubling the number of soldiers deployed to protect themselves from attacks, after two women and a man were killed Thursday in a church in the city of Nice.
Speaking from the scene of the attack, Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice, Macron said that France had been attacked “for our values, for our taste for freedom, for the ability on our soil to have the freedom of belief ”.
“We will not cede any ground,” he added.
Macron’s announcement to increase deployments from around 3,000 troops to 7,000 came hours after the alleged terror attack left the European country in shock.
A man armed with a knife attacked people inside the church around 9 a.m. local time, killing a woman and a man, French police confirmed to NBC News.
A third victim, another woman, fled the church to seek refuge in a cafe but was tracked down and killed, police added. Several others were injured and the suspect was shot dead by police and being treated in hospital, police said.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex also said on Thursday that the country had raised its security alert status to the highest level, in what police called a terrorist attack in the southern coastal city.
The Nice attack comes at a time of heightened tension between France and the Muslim world over the republication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe.
The cartoons are considered deeply blasphemous by Muslims and have caused anger among them across the world. He also reignited a heated debate on representations that Muslims deem offensive but which are protected by French laws on freedom of expression.
The incident comes nearly two weeks after an 18-year-old Chechen refugee beheaded a French schoolteacher who had shown students the Charlie Hebdo cartoons during a civics class.
Nice is no stranger to such attacks.
The scene of the incident in central Nice was not far from the site of a 2016 bombing on July 14, when crowds celebrating along the tree-lined Promenade des Anglais were attacked by a truck which plowed there, killing dozens of people.
Other clashes and attacks were reported on Thursday, one in the southern French city of Avignon, which police said was unrelated to terrorism and another in the Saudi city. from Jeddah, where a security guard from the French consulate was attacked with a knife, according to the French Embassy in Saudi Arabia.
The assailant was immediately apprehended by Saudi security forces and the security guard was taken to hospital with non-fatal injuries, the embassy said. But it was not immediately clear whether the incident was linked to the attack on Nice.
French churches rang with emotion at 3 p.m. local time to pay tribute to the victims of Nice.
Police said the National Anti-Terrorist Prosecutor’s Office has opened an official investigation.
Images from French media and news agencies showed the cordoned off area, as well as a heavy police presence outside the White Basilica.
Mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi tweeted that the suspect had been arrested and that one of the victims of the attack inside the church was a guard, appreciated by parishioners. NBC News was unable to immediately verify this report.
The mayor also said that the attacker repeated the cry “Allahu Akbar! Because he was being treated medically at the scene after the police fired shots wounding him, but he did not indicate where the information came from.
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Thursday’s assault was the third attack since the start in September of a terrorism trial against the January 2015 killings at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris.
France on Tuesday warned its citizens abroad in Muslim-majority countries to take additional security measures as anger mounted over the cartoons.
Muslims have staged protests in several countries and called for a boycott of French goods in response to France’s stance on the cartoons of Islam’s most revered prophet, whose birthday was also marked on Thursday.
Condemnations for the attack came from Pope Francis, Great Britain, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. While the French Council for the Muslim Faith also condemned the attack.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.