France will not give in to terror, Emmanuel Macron has said, in a call for firmness and unity after the country’s latest terrorist attack left three people dead.
The president issued a sombre but defiant message after a man armed with a knife killed two women and a man in the Notre-Dame basilica in central Nice, the second such attack in France in less than a fortnight.
The man entered the church carrying a knife with a 17cm blade around 8.30am; within 30 minutes he had killed two people and fatally injured a third.
One of the victims was a 60-year-old woman who had been in the basilica praying since shortly after it opened at about 8.30am.
France’s anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean-François Ricard said she had her throat cut “to the point of being almost decapitated”.
A man, believed to be the church sexton, was the second victim. He was named as Vincent Loqués, 55, and a father of two children. He also reportedly had his throat cut.
A woman, aged 44, was stabbed several times and critically injured but managed to escape from the church to a nearby bar, where she died of her injuries. She has been named in Brazilian press as Simone Barreto Silva, a mother of three and originally from Salvador.
Police described the scene as a “vision of horror”.
City police who were first at the scene shot the killer several times after he reportedly refused to drop the knife, injuring him in the shoulder. By 9.10am the attacker had been “neutralised”. French officials praised the prompt police action in preventing further bloodshed.
The national anti-terrorist prosecutor has opened an investigation into “killings linked to a terrorist organisation”.
At a press conference on Thursday evening, Ricard said the attacker was carrying three knives – two of which were not used in the attack – and a Qur’an.
He was named by French media as Brahim Aouissaoui, a 21-year-old Tunisian national who reportedly entered France illegally via Lampedusa, Italy, at the beginning of October. Aouissaoui was not carrying any identity papers apart from a document from the Italian Red Cross.
Ricard said the man was picked up by CCTV cameras at Nice station at 6.47am. “He changed his jacket and his shoes. He then walked 400m to Notre-Dame basilica. He entered at 8.29am,” the prosecutor announced.
“At 8.57am, the municipal police intervened and entered the church. The man, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, was shot.”
Ricard said investigators had established that Aouissaoui was registered at Lampedusa in Italy on 20 September and had been at the Italian Adriatic port of Bari on 9 October.
Thursday’s attack came 13 days after an 18-year-old man beheaded Samuel Paty, 47, a history teacher, outside his high school north-east of Paris. The professor had shown pupils caricatures, including one of the prophet Muhammad published in the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, during a discussion on freedom of speech.
Macron promised after Paty’s murder to crack down on Islamist extremism, including shutting down mosques and other organisations accused of fomenting radicalism and violence. His comments sparked angry protests across the Muslim world and calls for a boycott of French goods.
“It is France that is under attack,” the president said. “Three of our compatriots died at the basilica in Nice today and at the same time a French consular site was attacked in Saudi Arabia.
“I want to express, first and foremost, the nation’s support for the Catholics of France and elsewhere. After 2016, with the killing of Father Hamel, it is the Catholics of our country attacked once more, and just before All Saints’ Day. We are at their side in order that religion can be freely exercised in our country. People can believe or not believe, all religions can be practised, but today the nation is beside our Catholic compatriots.
“My second message is to Nice and the people of Nice who have already suffered as a result of the Islamist terrorist folly. This is the third time terrorism has struck your city and you have the support and solidarity of the nation.
“If we have been attacked once again, it is because of our values, our taste for freedom; the freedom to believe freely and not give in to any terror. We will give in to nothing. Today we have increased our security to deal with the terrorist threat.”
Macron said the French military was being mobilised to protect all places of worship, particularly Catholic churches, for the religious holiday of All Saints Day on Sunday. The number of soldiers on the streets is to be raised from 3,000 to 7,000 and troops will be deployed outside schools for the return to class on Monday.
“Our absolute determination in the face of these acts will continue and we will protect all our citizens. In response, my message is one of absolute firmness and unity. There is only one community in France, the national community,” he said.
Just two hours after the Nice attack, police in Avignon shot and killed an man with firearm who had assaulted a merchant of North African descent. Officials said the man was shot after refusing to drop his weapon and ignoring a warning shot. Avignon Prosecutor Philippe Guemas said the man belonged to extreme-right group Generation Identity and appeared to be “psychologically unstable.”
A witness to the Nice attack, a man called David who runs a restaurant opposite the church, told BFMTV he had alerted the police.
“I was selling croissants when a man came in and said to me: ‘Sir, there’s a decapitated woman in the cathedral.’ I didn’t believe him at first but he repeated it. I went to the cathedral and saw the municipal police and called to them. They came quickly.”
The Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (French Muslim Council, CFCM) condemned Thursday’s attack and called on Muslims to cancel their Mawlid celebrations – from 28-29 October to mark the birth of the Prophet – as a “sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their loved ones”.
The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, said the whole of Nice was deeply shocked: “Enough is enough … We have to remove this Islamo-fascism from our territory.”
Also on Thursday, Le Progrès newspaper reported that a man in “traditional Afghan dress” and carrying a knife was arrested in Lyon, and a Saudi man was arrested in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after injuring a guard at the French consulate with a “sharp tool”, state television reported.