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Three dead in church attack, plunging France into dual emergency

It was the third attack in two months in France that authorities have attributed to Muslim extremists, including the beheading of a teacher.

By: AP | Nice (france) |
Updated: October 30, 2020 7:16:59 am
A police officer stands near Notre Dame church, where a knife attack took place, in Nice, France October 29, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard/Pool)

An attacker armed with a knife killed three people inside a church on Thursday in the southern French city of Nice, prompting the government to raise its security alert status to the maximum level hours before a nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

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 during a growing furor over caricatures of the Prophet that were republished in recent months 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.

Follow France knife attack LIVE Updates

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

French President Emmanuel Macron said he would immediately increase the number of soldiers deployed to protect schools and religious sites from around 3,000 currently to 7,000, and France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor opened an investigation.

French churches have been ferociously attacked by extremists in recent years, and Thursday’s killings come ahead of the Roman Catholic All Saints’ holiday.

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

Thursday’s attacker was believed to be acting alone, and police are not searching for other assailants, said two police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be publicly named.

Soldiers patrol near Notre Dame church in Nice, southern France, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (Eric Gaillard/Pool via AP)

“He cried ‘Allah Akbar!’ over and over, even after he was injured,” said Christian Estrosi, the mayor of the Mediterranean city who confirmed a woman and a man died inside the church, while a second woman fled to a nearby bar but was mortally wounded. “The meaning of his gesture left no doubt.”

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. For a time after the attack, explosions could be heard as sappers detonated suspicious objects.

EXPLAINED | France, Emmanuel Macron and Islam

It was the third attack since Charlie Hebdo republished the caricatures in September as the trial opened for the 2015 attacks at the paper’s offices and a kosher supermarket. The gunmen in that attack claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group and al-Qaida, which both recently called anew for strikes against France.

A verdict is planned for November 13, the fifth anniversary of another series of deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

The series of recent attacks come amid renewed outcry over depictions of Islam’s most revered prophet — whose birthday was marked in several countries on Thursday — and the French government’s fierce defense of the right to publish and show them.

Forensic police officers inspect the scene of a knife attack at Notre Dame church in Nice, southern France, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. (Eric Gaillard/Pool via AP)

Muslims have held protests in several countries and called for a boycott of French goods. Dozens of Pakistani students rallied in the capital on Thursday to denounce Macron.

“With the attack against Samual Paty, it was freedom of speech that was targeted,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told lawmakers on Thursday, referring to the teacher who was beheaded after showing his class caricatures of the prophet during a civics lesson. “With this attack in Nice, it is freedom of religion.”

Earlier, the lower house of parliament suspended a debate on France’s new virus restrictions and held a moment of silence for the victims. Castex rushed from the hall to a crisis center overseeing the aftermath of the Nice attack and later returned to announce the alert level increase. Macron left for Nice almost immediately.

“Very clearly, it is France which is under attack,” Macron said as he stood before the church. He added that all of France offered its support to Catholics “so that their religion can be exercised freely in our country. So that every religion can be practiced.”

France: Two dead in knife attack in Nice church, official says terrorism suspected Mayor Christian Estrosi said on Twitter the knife attack had happened in or near the city’s Notre Dame church and that police had detained the attacker. (Christian Estrosi/Twitter)

In Avignon on Thursday morning, an armed man was shot and killed by police after he refused to drop his weapon and a flash-ball shot failed to stop him, one police official said.

And a Saudi state-run news agency said a man stabbed a guard at the French consulate in Jeddah, wounding the guard before he was arrested.

 READ | India slams Turkey, Pakistan for attacks on Macron

While many groups and nations have been angered or frustrated by France’s position on the cartoons, several issued their condolences Thursday.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith condemned the Nice attack and called on French Muslims to refrain from festivities marking the birth of Prophet Muhammad “as a sign of mourning and in solidarity with the families of victims and the Catholics of France.”

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the attack. “We stand in solidarity with the people of France against terror and violence,” the statement said.

Relations between Turkey and France hit a new low after Turkey’s president accused Macron of Islamophobia over the caricatures and questioned his mental health, prompting Paris to recall its ambassador to Turkey for consultations.

The attack in Nice came less than two weeks after Paty, the teacher, was beheaded. In September, a man who had sought asylum in France attacked bystanders outside Charlie Hebdo’s former offices with a butcher knife. (AP)

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