PARIS (AP) — An man with a knife hidden in his bag attacked three soldiers on an anti-terror patrol in front of a Jewish community center in southern France on Tuesday, two police officials said.
Sarah Baron, a police union official in the city of Nice, said the man was detained after the attack near the Galeries Lafayette department store. Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi said the attacker had an identity card with the name Moussa Coulibaly.
The surname, which is relatively common for families of Malian descent, is the same as that of the man who seized hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris and gunned down a policewoman last month.
Another police official said the attacker pulled a knife at least 20 centimeters (8 inches) long out of a bag and set upon one of the soldiers, injuring him in the chin. He then swiped two other soldiers — one in the cheek, the other in the forearm — before being apprehended by riot police stationed near the building, which houses the city’s Jewish community center.
A manager at the center, who did not want to be identified because she was afraid, confirmed soldiers posted in front of the building were attacked. She said it happened around lunchtime and no one was inside the office.
The attacker, aged about 30, had a record of theft and violence, the official said on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing. His motive was not yet clear, the official added.
A French security official said the attacker had been sent home by Turkish authorities last week after flying in on a one-way ticket.
Turkey is a transit point for jihadis from Europe to join up with Islamic extremist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Border police had flagged Coulibaly to their Turkish counterparts on January 28, who promptly returned him home, the French security official said on condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
French authorities, however, were unable to turn up enough evidence against Coulibaly to open a legal case against him.
Mayor Estrosi told BFM television that a possible accomplice had been detained.
France has been on high alert since the attacks in the Paris region by three Islamic extremists that left 20 people dead, including the gunmen. More than 10,000 soldiers have been deployed around the country to protect sensitive locations, including major shopping areas, synagogues, mosques and transit hubs.
Earlier Tuesday, French authorities arrested seven men and a woman suspected of involvement in a network to send fighters to join Islamic extremists in Syria.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said those arrested in the Paris and Lyon areas are not suspected of links to the January 7-9 attacks.
Police are trying to thwart new violence and find possible accomplices to three radical Islamic gunmen who attacked a kosher grocery and newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The men claimed allegiance to extremists in the Mideast.
Three of those arrested Tuesday had traveled to Syria and returned in December 2014, a French official said, though it was unclear whether they joined the Islamic State group or another group.
The network began sending French fighters to Syria in May 2013, and at least one of them was killed there, the official said. Other members of the network are still in Syria.
The group did not appear to be involved in any particular plot, or linked to any other networks already broken up in France in recent months, said the official, who was not authorized to be publicly identified discussing security matters.
France has seen hundreds of homegrown radicals join extremists abroad, most linked to the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
Cazeneuve said recent atrocities by the Islamic State group — including the killing of a Japanese hostage — “only strengthen the government’s determination to fight terrorism every day and every hour.”
French authorities have come under criticism for being overzealous in cracking down on potential threats since the attacks, arresting dozens for comments seen as defending terrorism and notably questioning an 8-year-old boy.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.