NICE, France (Reuters) – A knife-wielding assailant shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest) beheaded a woman and killed two others at a church in the French city of Nice on Thursday.
A provocative President Emmanuel Macron, declaring that France had been the subject of an Islamist terrorist attack, said he would deploy thousands more troops to protect key French sites, such as places of worship and schools.
Speaking from the stage, he said that France had been attacked “for our values, for our taste for freedom, for the ability on our soil to have freedom of belief”.
“And I repeat it very clearly today: we will not give up any ground.”
In Saudi Arabia, state television reported that a Saudi man was arrested in the city of Jeddah on the Red Sea after attacking and injuring a guard at the French consulate. The French embassy said he was in hospital after a knife attack when his life was not in danger.
Hours after the Nice attack, police killed a man who threatened passers-by with a handgun in Montfavet, near the city of Avignon, in southern France.
French newspaper Le Figaro cited a prosecution source who said the man was undergoing psychiatric treatment and they did not believe there was a terrorist motive.
The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, said the attack in his town occurred at Notre Dame Church and was similar to the beheading earlier this month near Paris of Professor Samuel Paty, who had used cartoons of the prophet Mohammad in a civic education class.
The attacks on Thursday, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, came at a time of growing anger among Muslims over France’s defense of the right to publish the cartoons, and protesters denounced France in street rallies in several predominantly Muslim countries.
After the Nice attack, Prime Minister Jean Castex raised France’s security alert to its highest level.
Estrosi said the Nice striker repeatedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” even while being detained by police.
At around 9 a.m. (0800 GMT), a man armed with a knife entered the church and slit the sacristan’s throat, beheaded an elderly woman and seriously injured a third woman, according to a police source.
The sacristan and the elderly woman died on the spot, the third woman managed to get out of the church to a nearby cafe, where she died, Estrosi told reporters. None of the victims have so far been named.
“The alleged knife attacker was shot dead by police while in detention. He is on his way to the hospital, he is alive, ”he said.
” Enough is enough. It is now time for France to exonerate itself from the laws of peace in order to definitively annihilate the Islamo-fascism of our territory.
Reuters journalists at the scene said police officers armed with automatic weapons had set up a security cordon around the church, which is on Avenue Jean Médecin in Nice, the main shopping thoroughfare in the city. city of the French Riviera. Ambulances and fire vehicles were also on the scene.
Condemnations for the attack came from Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which President Tayyip Erdogan criticized earlier this week Macron and France for the demonstrations of the prophet Mohammad.
Turkish Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said Islam could not be used in the name of terrorism, adding: “We call on the French leadership to avoid any new inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims and instead focus on the search for the perpetrators of this act of violence and others. “
In Paris, the legislators of the National Assembly observed a minute of silence. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, declared that the people of Nice “can count on the support of the city of Paris and of the Parisians”.
A representative of the French Council for the Muslim Faith also condemned the attack. “As a sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their loved ones, I call on all Muslims in France to cancel all celebrations for Mawlid’s Day.” The holiday is the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, celebrated on Thursday.
The foreign ministry of Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, declared that “extremist acts” like the one in Nice “contravene all religions, while stressing” the importance of avoiding all practices which generate violence. hatred, violence and extremism ”.
France is still reeling from the murder by a Chechen man of teacher Paty in a Paris suburb earlier this month. The attacker said he wanted to punish Paty for showing his students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
France, with the largest Muslim community in Europe, has suffered a series of attacks by militant Islamists in recent years, including bombings and shootings in 2015 in Paris that left 130 dead and one attack in 2016 in Nice during which an activist drove a truck through a seaside crowd for Bastille Day, killing 86.