Sun | Nov 29, 2020

France goes on maximum alert after attack at church kills 3

Published:Thursday | October 29, 2020 | 9:18 AM
Police officers stand guard near Notre Dame church in Nice, southern France, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. An attacker armed with a knife killed at least three people at a church in the Mediterranean city of Nice, prompting the prime minister to announce that France was raising its security alert status to the highest level (Eric Gaillard/Pool via AP)

PARIS (AP) — An attacker armed with a knife killed three people inside a church Thursday in the Mediterranean city of Nice, French authorities said, prompting the country to raise its security alert status to the highest level.

It was the third attack in two months in France that authorities have attributed to Muslim extremists, including the beheading of a teacher. It comes amid a growing furor over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that were republished by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo — renewing vociferous debate in France and the Muslim world over the depictions that Muslims consider offensive but are protected by French free speech laws.

Other confrontations and attacks were reported Thursday in the southern French city of Avignon and in the Saudi city of Jiddah, but it was not immediately clear if they were linked to the attack in Nice.

“He cried ‘Allah Akbar!’ over and over, even after he was injured,” said Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, who told BFM television that two women and a man had died, two inside the church and a third who fled to a nearby bar but was mortally wounded. “The meaning of his gesture left no doubt.”

The assailant in Nice was wounded by police and hospitalised after the killings at the Notre Dame Basilica, less than a kilometer (half-mile) from the site in 2016 where another attacker plowed a truck into a Bastille Day crowd, killing dozens of people.

Shots punctuated the air and witnesses screamed as police stationed at the grandiose doors to the church appeared to fire at the attacker inside, according to videos obtained by The Associated Press. Hours later, AP reporters at the scene saw emergency vehicles and police tape lining the wide Notre Dame Avenue leading toward the plaza in front of the basilica. For a time after the attack, sounds of explosions could be heard as sappers exploded suspicious objects.

France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into the attack, the third one since a trial opened in September for people linked to the 2015 attacks at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket by gunmen who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group and al-Qaida. The trial is nearing its end, with a verdict planned for Nov. 13, the fifth anniversary of another series of deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Thursday’s attacker was believed to be acting alone and police are not searching for other assailants, said two police officials, who were not authorised to be publicly named.

French Roman Catholic sites have been ferociously and repeatedly targeted by extremists in recent years, including the killing of the Rev. Jaqcues Hamel, who had his throat slit while celebrating Mass in his Normandy church by Islamic militants and a plot to bomb Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral. Those attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group, which also is believed to have recruited a man now on trial who plotted unsuccessfully to attack a church on the outskirts of Paris.

Nice’s 19th-century basilica 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 basilica’s twin neogothic towers, standing 70 yards (65 meters) high, are a landmark feature in the heart of the city.

Follow The Gleaner on Twitter and Instagram @JamaicaGleaner and on Facebook @GleanerJamaica. Send us a message on WhatsApp at 1-876-499-0169 or email us at onlinefeedback@gleanerjm.com or editors@gleanerjm.com.