French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday branded the grisly killing of three people — including one who was beheaded — in a church in the city of Nice an “Islamist terrorist attack,” with his government raising the terror alert level to maximum countrywide.
Macron, who quickly traveled to Nice, announced increased surveillance of churches by France’s Sentinelle military patrols, which would be bolstered to 7,000 troops from 3,000.
“Quite clearly, it is France that is being attacked,” he said. “If we are attacked, it is because of our values. France will not give up on our values.”
Macron offered condolences to the country’s Catholics after the killing, and urged people of all religions to unite and not “give in to the spirit of division.”
The chief rabbi of Nice said all synagogues in the southern French city would remain be closed after the attack.
“Terrorism doesn’t differ between religions and all of us feel threatened,” Daniel Teboul told Channel 13 news. “We made a decision to close all schools tomorrow. Synagogues will be closed and kosher shops will be on alert.”
The assailant was shot and wounded by police, Nice’s Mayor Christian Estrosi said.
“He kept repeating ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Greatest) even while under medication” as he was brought to the hospital, Estrosi told journalists.
The body of a woman who had been beheaded was found inside the Basilica of Notre-Dame, in the heart of the Mediterranean resort city, a source close to the inquiry said. The body of a man, a church employee of about 45 years old, was also found inside the church, while another woman succumbed to her injuries after seeking refuge in a nearby bar.
Father Philippe Asso, who serves at the basilica, said no mass was underway at the time of the attack, but the church opens around 8 a.m. and “people come in to pray at all hours.”
The suspect is a 21-year-old Tunisian who arrived in Europe just a few weeks ago, sources close to the inquiry said.
The suspect, identified as Brahim Aouissaoui, landed in late September on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he was placed in virus quarantine by authorities before being released with an order to quit Italian territory. He arrived in France in early October, the sources said.
Churches across France sounded death knells, the traditional bell tollings to mark a death, at 3 p.m.
The killings occurred just ahead of the Catholic holy day of All Saints Day on Sunday.
Shortly afterward, police in Lyon said they had arrested an Afghan who was spotted carrying a 30-centimeter (12-inch) knife while trying to board a tram.
France has been on high alert since the January 2015 massacre at the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, which marked the beginning of a wave of jihadist attacks that have killed more than 250 people.
Tensions have heightened since last month, when the trial opened for 14 suspected accomplices in that attack.
The paper marked the start of the court proceedings by republishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that infuriated millions of Muslims worldwide.
Just days later, an 18-year-old man from Pakistan seriously injured two people with a meat cleaver outside Charlie Hebdo’s former offices in Paris.
And two weeks ago, the history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded outside his school in a Paris suburb after he showed some of the Muhammad cartoons to students as part of a course on free speech. The assailant, an 18-year-old Chechen named Abdullakh Anzorov, apparently acted after some angry parents denounced the teacher on social media.
‘Act of cowardice’
Paty’s murder prompted Macron to promise a crackdown on Islamic extremism, including shutting down mosques and organizations accused of fomenting radicalism and violence.
But the move has inflamed tensions, with many Muslims saying Macron is unfairly targeting France’s estimated five to six million Muslims — the largest community in Europe.
Protests against France have erupted in several Muslim countries, with some urging a boycott of French goods.
Adding to the nervousness, a Saudi citizen wounded a guard in a knife attack at the French consulate in Jeddah on Thursday.
In Nice, painful memories remain fresh of a jihadist attack during Bastille Day fireworks on July 14, 2016, when a man rammed his truck into a crowded promenade, killing 86 people.
Just a few days later, two teenagers murdered an 85-year-old priest as he conducted mass at his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in northern France, an attack later claimed by the Islamic State terror group.
Abdallah Zekri, director-general of the French Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM), said: “I can only denounce as strongly as possible this act of cowardice against the innocent.”
Zekri called on French Muslims to cancel festivities to mark the Mawlid, or the Prophet’s Birthday, which ends Thursday, “in solidarity with the victims and their loved ones.”