A priest was killed and another person critically injured on Tuesday after two men armed with knives took hostages at a church near the northern French city of Rouen, a police source said, amid speculation the attack could be related to Islamic terror.
The French interior ministry said that two hostage-takers were killed by police in the attack in the town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.
The second hostage, apparently a parishioner, was “between life and death,” the interior ministry said.
The motivations for the hostage-taking were not yet clear, but the Paris prosecutor’s office said the case had been handed to anti-terrorism judges for investigation.
French President Francois Hollande later said the assailants had claimed to be from the Islamic State.
A source close the investigation said the priest, named as 84-year-old Jacques Hamel, had his throat slit in the attack.
The incident comes as France remains on high alert nearly two weeks after Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed a truck into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day in the French Riviera city of Nice, killing 84 people and injuring over 300.
Hollande, who is from Rouen, and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve were on their way to the scene, their offices said.
In a statement, Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed “horror at the barbaric attack on a church,” and church officials in France and elsewhere condemned the incident.
Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said the RAID special intervention force was searching the church and its perimeter for possible explosives. Terrorism investigators have been summoned, he said.
It was not clear how many people were in the church at the time of the attack, which reportedly came after the knifemen sneaked in through a back door as Hamel was giving morning mass.
An official said five people were held during the standoff, including Hamel and parishioners.
Police could not say what the motive for the attack was, but speculation was rampant it could be related to Islamist terror.
According to Le Figaro, one hostage taker was bearded and was wearing a woolen cap worn by Muslim men.
French media also reported the attackers yelled “Daesh” as they entered the church, though it’s not clear why they would announce themselves using a derogatory term for the Islamic State terror group.
France is on edge following a string of terror attacks there and in Germany in recent weeks, including the truck attack in Nice and a suicide bombing in southern Germany Sunday night that wounded 15.
Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State.
France last week voted to extend emergency laws aimed at preventing terror attacks.
It was the fourth time the measures were extended since Islamic State jihadists struck Paris in November 2015, killing 130 people at restaurants, a concert hall and the national stadium.
Hollande had planned to lift the measures on July 26 but changed tack after the Nice attack.