3 dead after knife attack at French church; terrorism suspected

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French policemen and firemen stand next to Notre Dame church after a knife attack, in Nice, France, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. French anti-terrorism prosecutors are investigating a knife attack at a church in the Mediterranean city of Nice that killed two people and injured several others. (AP Photo/Alexis Gilli)

PARIS (AP) — A man armed with a knife attacked people inside a French church and killed three Thursday, prompting the government to raise its security alert status to the maximum level hours before a nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

The attack in Mediterranean city of Nice was the third in two months in France that authorities have attributed to Muslim extremists, including the beheading of a teacher

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.

French President Emmanuel Macron says he will more than double the number of soldiers deployed in the country to protect against attacks, sending 7,000 to guard schools and religious sites.

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

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

France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into the Nice killings, which marked the third attack since the September opening of the trial of 14 people linked to the January 2015 killings at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket by gunmen who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.

“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.”

In Nice, images on French media showed the neighborhood locked down and surrounded by police and emergency vehicles. Sounds of explosions could be heard as sappers exploded suspicious objects.

The lower house of parliament suspended a debate on France’s new virus restrictions and held a moment of silence Thursday for the victims. Prime Minister Jean 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. French President Emmanuel Macron was headed to Nice later in the day.

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.

In Avignon on Thursday morning, an armed man was shot to death 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 Jiddah, wounding the guard before he was arrested.

Islamic State extremists had issued a video on Wednesday renewing calls for attacks against France.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith condemned the Nice attack and called on French Muslims to refrain from festivities this week marking the birth of Muhammad “as a sign of mourning and in solidarity with the victims and their loved ones.”

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the attack in Nice. “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 on Saturday accused Macron of Islamophobia over the caricatures and questioned his mental health, prompting Paris to recall its ambassador to Turkey for consultations.

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri posted on Twitter “the strongest condemnation” of the attack in Notre Dame Church in Nice, calling it a heinous crime. “Terrorism has no religion, and all Muslims are called on to reject this criminal act that is not related to Islam or to the prophet of love,” he wrote.

The European Union’s top officials have strongly condemned the knife attack in Nice and expressed their support to France, a founding member of the 27-nation bloc.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU’s executive arm, said the whole of Europe stands behind France, “determined in the face of barbarism and fanaticism.”

The attack in Nice came less than two weeks after another assailant beheaded a French middle school teacher who showed the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad for a class on free speech. Those caricatures were published by Charlie Hebdo and cited by the men who gunned down the newspaper’s editorial meeting in 2015.

This is a developing story. Check back for more details.

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