Three people have been killed—including one elderly woman and another person by decapitation—and several others injured in a suspected terror attack inside the Notre-Dame basilica in the French city of Nice. The knife-wielding assailant, who was wounded by police gunfire, allegedly yelled “Allahu Akbar” several times, including while he was being detained, in what has come to be known as a battle cry for Islamic extremists in Europe.
The city’s mayor, Christian Estrosi, wrote immediately after the killings that “everything suggests a terrorist attack,” and said the unnamed suspect had been arrested and taken to a hospital in the city. The Paris’ anti-terror prosecutors office said it has opened an investigation.
Italian police said late Thursday that the killer is a 21-year-old Tunisian migrant who was smuggled to the Italian island of Lampedusa in September. After he completed the mandatory two-week COVID-19 quarantine, he left the migrant camp and made his way to France. Authorities have his details and fingerprints as part of the immigration process and are working with French police.
“The suspected knife attacker was shot by police while being detained. He is on his way to hospital, he is alive,” Estrosi told reporters at the scene. Although a motive has not been confirmed by officials, the mayor expressed his wish to “wipe out Islamo-fascism” from the country.
French President Emmanuel Macron declared a state of emergency and ordered security to be strengthened at places of worship across the nation. On Wednesday night, Macron had put France back into lockdown because of its out-of-control resurgence in coronavirus cases. Hours after the attack, he visited the basilica and met with security and rescue personnel.
The Nice slashings occurred on the same day that an assailant was shot dead by police near another French city, Avignon, after he reportedly waved a gun at officers, and also as a guard was reportedly attacked outside the French consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Local reports in the French Riviera city say the elderly woman and a man who died were attacked inside the heart of the Nice basilica. The BBC reports a woman who fled to a nearby cafe was stabbed many times and died at a hospital, and that a witness at the scene managed to set off an alarm on a “special protection system” set up by city officials.
One eyewitness told the BBC: “We heard many people shouting in the street. We saw from the window that there were many, many policemen coming, and gunshots, many gunshots.”
In July 2016, Nice was the scene of unthinkable carnage when an armed French delivery driver attacked a waterfront Bastille Day fireworks party with a truck, killing at 84 people, including 10 children.
France has been under high alert for terrorist acts in recent weeks as 14 people suspected of murdering 12 Charlie Hebdo staffers, a female police officer, and four men in a Jewish supermarket in 2015 in retaliation for the publication of cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad went on trial.
As the courtroom proceedings opened, two people were stabbed near the publication’s old offices in Paris on Sept. 25 in what the French interior minister then declared was “clearly an act of Islamist terrorism.”
The Nice attack also comes less than two weeks after the beheading of middle-school teacher Samuel Paty in Paris after he had shown his students cartoons published by the satirical magazine.
Estrosi said the two attacks were similar. “The methods match, without doubt, those used against the brave teacher in Conflans Sainte Honorine, Samuel Paty,” he said.
President Macron delivered the eulogy at Paty’s funeral, and said France would not abandon its right to free speech. “We will continue, Professor. We will defend the freedom that you taught so well and we will promote secularism, we will not renounce caricatures, drawings, even if others retreat,” Macron said. “We will continue the fight for freedom and the freedom of which you are now the face.”
Macron’s comments have drawn sharp criticism in the Islamic world with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling for a boycott of French goods. In response, Charlie Hebdo published a caricature of Erdogan in his underwear lifting a Muslim woman’s skirt on Wednesday, drawing scorn from Erdogan for what he referred to as a “a grave insult to my prophet.”