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.
French President Emmanuel Macron has said he will immediately increase the number of troops deployed to protect schools and religious sites from around 3,000 currently to 7,000, and the French counterterrorism prosecutor has opened an investigation. French churches have come under fierce attack from extremists in recent years, and Thursday’s killings precede All Saints’ Day.
The assailant was injured by police and hospitalized after the murders at Notre Dame Basilica, less than a kilometer from the site in 2016, where another attacker rammed a truck into a July 14 crowd, killing people. dozens of people. Thursday’s assailant was said to have acted alone and police were not looking for other assailants, said two police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be named publicly.
“He cried” Allah Akbar! “Over and over again, even after being injured,” said Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, who confirmed that a woman and a man had died inside the church, while a second woman s ‘fled to a nearby bar but was fatally injured. “The meaning of his gesture leaves no room for doubt. ”
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. For some time after the attack, explosions could be heard as sappers detonated suspicious objects.
It was the third attack since Charlie Hebdo reposted the cartoons in September as the trial opened for the 2015 bombings of the newspaper’s offices and a kosher supermarket. The gunmen in the attack claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group and to Al-Qaida, which recently called for new strikes against France.
A verdict is slated for November 13, the fifth anniversary of yet another round of deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.
The recent spate of attacks comes against a backdrop of renewed outcry over portrayals of Islam’s most revered prophet – whose birthday was marked Thursday in several countries – and the French government’s fierce defense of the right to publish them and show them. Muslims have staged protests in several countries and called for a boycott of French products. Dozens of Pakistani students gathered in the capital on Thursday to denounce Macron.
“With the attack on Samual Paty, it was freedom of expression that was targeted,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told lawmakers on Thursday, referring to the teacher beheaded after showing his class caricatures of the prophet during a civic education class. “With this attack in Nice, it is freedom of religion. ”
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. Macron left for Nice almost immediately.
“Very clearly, it is France that is under attack,” Macron said as he stood in front of the church. He added that all of France offered its support to Catholics “so that their religion can be exercised freely in our country. So that any religion can be practiced ”.
In Avignon on Thursday morning, a gunman was shot and killed by police after refusing to drop his gun and a flash of fire 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.
While many groups and nations were angered or frustrated by France’s stance on the cartoons, several expressed their condolences on Thursday, as did France’s traditional allies.
The French Council of Muslim Faith condemned the Nice attack and called on French Muslims to refrain from the festivities marking the birth of Muhammad “as a sign of mourning and solidarity with the families of the victims and the Catholics of France” .
The Turkish Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the 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 accused Macron of Islamophobia over the cartoons and questioned his sanity, prompting Paris to recall its ambassador to Turkey for consultations.
The attack in Nice came less than two weeks after Paty, the teacher, was beheaded. 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 also been frequently targeted, 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 Cathedral. -Lady of Paris. The attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group, which also reportedly recruited a man currently on trial for an unsuccessful plot to attack a church.
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 are a highlight in the heart of the city.
Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press editors Angela Charlton and Thomas Adamson in Paris and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.