France on high alert after attack on church kills 3


PARIS – An attacker armed with a knife killed three people in a church on Thursday in the Mediterranean city of Nice, French authorities said, urging the country to raise its security alert status to the highest level. It was the third attack in two months in France that authorities attributed to Muslim extremists, including the beheading of a teacher. It comes amid growing fury over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that have been republished by satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo – renewing the noisy debate in France and the Muslim world over representations that Muslims consider offensive but are protected by the French laws on freedom of expression.

Further clashes and attacks were reported Thursday in the city of Avignon in southern France and the Saudi city of Jiddah, but it was not immediately clear whether they were linked to the attack on Nice.

“He cried” Allah Akbar! “Over and over again, even after being injured,” said Nice mayor Christian Estrosi, who told BFM television that two women and a man were dead, two inside the church and a third who had fled to a nearby bar but was fatally injured. “The meaning of his gesture leaves no room for doubt. ”

The Nice assailant was injured by police and hospitalized after the murders at Notre-Dame Basilica, less than a kilometer (800 meters) from the site in 2016, where another attacker rammed a truck into a crowd of July 14, killing dozens of people.

Gunshots punctuated the air and witnesses shouted as police stationed at the church’s grand doors appeared to shoot the attacker inside, according to videos obtained by The Associated Press. Hours later, PA journalists at the scene saw emergency vehicles and police tape lining the wide avenue Notre-Dame leading to the square in front of the basilica. For some time after the attack sounds of explosions could be heard as sappers detonated suspicious objects.

The French counterterrorism prosecution has opened an investigation into the attack, the third since a trial opened in September for people linked to the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket by gunmen who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group and to al-Qaida. . The trial is drawing to a close, with a verdict slated for November 13, the fifth anniversary of yet another round of deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Thursday’s attacker was said to have acted alone and police are not looking for other attackers, said two police officials, who were not authorized to be named publicly.

“With the attack on (teacher) Samual Paty, it was freedom of expression that was targeted. With this attack in Nice, it is freedom of religion, ”Prime Minister Jean Castex told lawmakers on Thursday.

Previously, the lower house of parliament suspended a debate on France’s new virus restrictions and reserved a minute’s silence for the victims. Castex rushed from the room to a crisis center overseeing the aftermath of the Nice attack and returned later to announce the increased alert level. French President Emmanuel Macron, who defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish the cartoons, arrived in Nice later in the day.

Muslims have staged protests in several countries and called for a boycott of French goods in response to France’s stance on cartoons of Islam’s most revered prophet, whose birthday was celebrated Thursday in several countries. Shortly before Thursday’s attack, supporters of the religious political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam demonstrated in Pakistan against Macron.

In Avignon on Thursday morning, an armed man was shot dead by police after refusing to drop his gun and a flash ball failed to stop him, a police official said. And a Saudi state news agency said a man stabbed a guard at the French consulate in Jiddah, injuring the guard before his arrest.

Islamic State extremists released a video on Wednesday renewing calls for attacks against France.

Many groups and nations, however, offered their condolences on Thursday, strongly supporting France.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith condemned the Nice attack and called on French Muslims to refrain this week from the festivities marking the birth of Muhammad “as a sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their relatives”.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the Nice attack. “We stand in solidarity with the French people against terror and violence,” the statement said.

Relations between Turkey and France hit a new low after the Turkish president on Saturday accused Macron of Islamophobia over the cartoons and questioned his sanity, prompting Paris to recall its ambassador to Turkey for consultations .

The Nice attack came less than two weeks after another assailant beheaded a French college professor who was showing the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad for a course on free speech. These cartoons were published by Charlie Hebdo and cited by the men who shot down the newspaper’s editorial meeting in 2015.

In September, a man who had applied for asylum in France attacked passers-by in front of the former Charlie Hebdo offices with a butcher’s knife.

French Catholic sites have been fiercely and repeatedly targeted by extremists in recent years, including the murder of Reverend Jaqcues Hamel, who had his throat slit while celebrating mass in his church in Normandy by Islamic militants and a plot to bomb Notre-Dame de Paris. cathedral. The attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group, which also reportedly recruited a man currently on trial who allegedly plotted unsuccessfully to attack a church on the outskirts of Paris.

Nice’s 19th-century Basilica of Notre-Dame de l’Assomption is the largest church in the city, but smaller and newer than the cathedral 1 mile (2 kilometers) away. The twin neo-Gothic towers of the basilica, 65 meters high, are an iconic element in the heart of the city.


Associated Press editors Angela Charlton and Thomas Adamson in Paris and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report


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