NICE, France – Three people were killed in a knife attack by a man in the Notre-Dame Basilica, in the center of the French city of Nice, on Thursday. The incident is being investigated as a terrorist attack and takes place less than two weeks after the beheading of history and geography professor Samuel Paty by an Islamic extremist, which has caused commotion in the country.
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The attack prompted France to raise alertness to its highest level. President Emmanuel Macron announced new anti-terror measures, with the displacement of thousands of soldiers to increase the security of religious centers and schools across the country. Macron, who expressed his support for the Catholic community, traveled to Nice hours after the criminal act.
“France is under attack,” said the president, calling for the unity of the French people. – If we are attacked, it is due to our values, our appreciation for freedom and the possibility of having freedom of belief in our territory (…). Today, I say it very clearly again: we will not give in.
In a joint statement, the 27 leaders of the European Union (EU) expressed solidarity with France: “We ask leaders from around the world to work for dialogue and understanding between communities and religions, rather than division”.
According to police, the suspect – later identified as Brahim Aouissaoui, a 21-year-old young man, allegedly of Tunisian origin – was shot and taken to a hospital, where he is in custody. Tunisia has opened an investigation into the case. According to the city’s mayor, Christian Estrosi, he shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) several times before being arrested.
The suspect reportedly arrived in Europe in one of the immigrant boats that usually dock on the Italian island of Lampedusa, according to Italian government security sources. From Lampedusa, he would have gone to Bari. Also according to these sources, joint Italian-French investigations are underway to reconstruct Brahim Aouissaoui’s displacements.
The basilica area, located on one of Nice’s busiest avenues, was isolated, and the Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor’s Office was called in to lead the investigation.
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Two of the dead were attacked inside the church, the largest in the city: the sacristan of the basilica, 45, and an elderly woman, who was beheaded. According to the newspaper Le Monde, the perpetrator tried to behead her, but failed. A third woman, while injured, managed to escape to a nearby cafe, but she couldn’t resist and died.
Three more incidents were reported on Thursday, coinciding with Mulude’s festivities, which mark the birthday of the prophet Muhammad. Shortly after the crime in Nice, police killed a man who threatened pedestrians in Montfavet, near Avignon, in the south of the country. He also shouted “God is great,” according to Europe 1 radio. Another man, an Afghan armed with a 30 cm knife, was arrested near the Perrache train station in Lyon.
In Saudi Arabia, a man was arrested in Jeddah after wounding a guard at the French Consulate. However, there is no evidence that the episodes were coordinated.
The details of the crime in Nice refer to the murder of Paty, who died on the 16th. The official, a Chechen man, said he sought to punish him for showing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo during a class. In 2015, the newsroom of the vehicle was the target of an attack that left 12 dead, motivated also by the publication of the drawings, considered a blasphemy by Muslims.
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In the past two weeks, Macron has said on several occasions that he would redouble efforts to prevent conservative Islamic beliefs from subverting French values such as freedom of expression and the secularity of the state and education, defending the right to publish cartoons. This generated strong repudiation in some Islamic countries, with criticism from the governments of Qatar, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Demonstrations and boycotts of French products are being organized in several of these nations – North Africa, in particular, is an important market for Paris. The opposition is led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is waging a public dispute with Macron. On Saturday, Erdogan said the Frenchman needed “a mental health check,” which prompted Paris to call his ambassador to Ankara.
Charlie Hebdo, in parallel, published this week a cartoon in which Erdogan appears sitting in an armchair, in his underwear and with a can of drink in hand, lifting a woman’s robes. Turkish authorities called the drawing a “disgusting effort” to “spread racism and cultural hatred” and promised to take legal and diplomatic measures. But putting aside tensions, the Turkish Chancellery rejected this farm’s “savage attack”, saying it sympathizes with the French people against violence and terrorism.
Pope criticizes attack
This Thursday’s attack in Nice was strongly repudiated by that of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, which called on all Muslims in the country to stop their celebrations of Mulude out of respect for the victims. Pope Francis, for his part, said that “terrorism and violence can never be accepted” and that he would pray for the victims and their families:
“It is a moment of pain, a moment of confusion. Today’s attack sowed death in a place of love and comfort, like the house of the Lord,” said the pontiff through his spokesman, Matteo Bruni.
In 2016, Nice was the scene of one of the most serious terrorist attacks that have taken place in France in recent years, when a man born in Tunisia launched a truck against the crowd celebrating Bastille Day, leaving 86 dead and 458 injured. Days later, a priest had his throat cut during a Mass in Rouen.
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