NICE (France): A relative (second-right) of the sacristan victim of a knife attack cries in front of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice on Thursday.—AFP
NICE (France): A relative (second-right) of the sacristan victim of a knife attack cries in front of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice on Thursday.—AFP

NICE: A knife-wielding attacker shouting “Allahu Akbar” beheaded a woman and killed two other people in a church in the French city of Nice on Thursday.

A defiant President Emmanuel Macron, declaring that France had been subject to an Islamist terrorist attack, said he would deploy thousands more soldiers to protect important French sites, such as places of worship and schools.

Speaking from the scene, he said France had been attacked “over our values, for our taste for freedom, for the ability on our soil to have freedom of belief”.

“And I say it with lots of clarity again today: we will not give any ground.”

A police source said the assailant was believed by law enforcement to be a 21-year-old Tunisian national who had recently entered France from neighbouring Italy. His identity was still being checked.

Within hours of the Nice attack, French police killed a man who had threatened passersby with a handgun in Montfavet, near the southern city of Avignon. France’s Le Figaro newspaper quoted a prosecution source as saying the man was undergoing psychiatric treatment, and that they did not believe there was a terrorism motive.

Nice’s Mayor Christian Estrosi said the attack in his city had happened at Notre Dame church and was similar to the beheading earlier this month near Paris of teacher Samuel Paty, who had used cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in a civics class.

Thursday’s attacks came at a time of growing Muslim anger at France’s defence of the right to publish the cartoons, and protesters have denounced France in street rallies in several Muslim-majority countries.

After the Nice attack, Prime Minister Jean Castex raised France’s security alert to its highest level.

Estrosi said the Nice attacker had repeatedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” even being detained by police.

At around 9am (0800 GMT), a man armed with a knife entered the church and slit the throat of the sexton, beheaded an elderly woman and badly wounded a third woman, according to a police source.

The sexton and the elderly woman died on the spot, the third woman managed to make it out of the church into a nearby cafe, where she died, Estrosi told reporters. None of the victims has so far been named.

“The suspected knife attacker was shot by police while being detained. He is on his way to hospital, he is alive,” he said. “Enough is enough. It’s time now for France to exonerate itself from the laws of peace in order to definitively wipe out Islamo-fascism from our territory.”

Reuters journalists at the scene said police armed with automatic weapons had put up a security cordon around the church, which is on Nice’s Avenue Jean Medecin, the French Riviera city’s main shopping thoroughfare. Ambulances and fire service vehicles were also at the scene.

Condemnations of the attack came from Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Saudi Arabia and Turkey whose President Tayyip Erdogan earlier this week slammed Emmanuel Macron and France over displays of Prophet Muhammad.

Turkish Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said Islam could not be used in the name of terrorism, adding: “We call on the French leadership to avoid further inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims and focus, instead, on finding the perpetrators of this and other acts of violence.”

In Paris, lawmakers in the National Assembly observed a minute’s silence. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said the people of Nice “can count on the support of the city of Paris and of Parisians”.

A representative of the French Council for the Muslim Faith also condemned the attack. “As a sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their loved ones, I call on all Muslims in France to cancel all the celebrations of the holiday of Mawlid.” The holiday is the birthday of Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), celebrated on Thursday.

The foreign ministry of Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, said “extremist acts” such as that in Nice “contravene all religions, while stressing “the importance of avoiding all practices which generate hatred, violence and extremism”.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2020