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3 dead in church attack, plunging France into dual emergency

   Thursday October 29, 2020 - 11:39 AM
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3 dead in church attack, plunging France into dual emergency
NICE, FRANCE - An attacker armed with a knife killed three people inside a church 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 Muhammad 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.

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 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, a half-mile (less than a kilometer) from the site in 2016 where another attacker plowed a truck into a Bastille Day crowd, killing ...

In Tunisia, the anti-terrorism prosecutor's office said an investigation was being opened on the "suspected commission of a terrorist crime by a Tunisian ... outside national borders,," the official TAP news agency quoted the prosecutor's office as saying.

The French prosecutor said the attacker was not on the radar of intelligence agencies as a potential threat.

Video cameras recorded the man entering the Nice train station at 6:47 a.m., where he changed his shoes and turned his coat inside out before heading for the church, some 400 meters (yards) away, just before 8:30 a.m.

Ricard said the attacker was carrying a copy of Islam's holy book and two telephones. A knife with a 17-centimeter blade used in the attack was found near him along with a bag containing another two knives that were not used in the attack.

He had spent some 30 minutes inside the church before police arrived via a side entrance and "after advancing down a corridor they came face-to-face with (the attacker) whom they neutralized," Ricard said.

Witnesses heard the man crying "Allahu Akbar" as he advanced on police. Police initially used an electric gun then fired their service revolvers. Ricard said 14 bullet casings were found on the ground.

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Ricard detailed a gruesome scene inside the church where two of the victims died. A 60-year-old woman suffered "a very deep throat slitting, like a decapitation," he said, and a 55-year-old man also suffered deep, fatal throat cuts. The third victim, a 44-year-old woman, managed to flee the church alive but died at a nearby restaurant.

Laurent Martin de Fremont, of the police union Unité SGP Police said the man was a sacristan at the basilica.

.The three were killed "only because they were in the church at that moment," Ricard told reporters. He said investigators are looking for potential complicity in the "complex" probe.

An investigation was opened for murder and attempted murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise, a common term for such crimes.

The attack in Nice came amid a fierce debate in France and beyond over the re-publication of the Muhammad caricatures by satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

The French consulate in the Saudi city of Jiddah was also targeted Thursday, a man claiming allegiance to an anti-immigrant group was shot and killed by police in the southern French city of Avignon, and scattered confrontations were reported elsewhere, but it is unclear whether they were linked to the attack in Nice.

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