(CN) — Three people were knifed to death Thursday morning in and near a cathedral in the southern French city of Nice in what French authorities are saying was a terrorist attack.
The attack shakes a nation already reeling from the Oct. 16 beheading of Samuel Paty, a middle school history teacher, by an 18-year-old Muslim extremist of Chechen origins. France held an emotional homage to Paty last week.
In Nice, two women and a man were killed by a knife-wielding attacker shouting “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is the greatest,” French media reported. One of the women was reportedly beheaded and several other people were wounded, French media reported.
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi called it a terrorist attack. The assailant was reportedly shot by police and then arrested. French media identified the attacker as Brahim Aoussaoui, a 21-year-old Tunisian national who’d entered the European Union at the end of October via Lampedusa, an Italian island off the coast of Libya that is a point of entry to Europe for thousands of asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented immigrants.
The killings in Nice add to widespread feelings in France that the nation is under attack from Muslim extremism because of France's strong secular traditions. A national debate over Islamic extremism and more generally over Muslims in France erupted after the killing of Paty. The 47-year-old teacher was beheaded in a town outside Paris after his decision to show his pupils controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo enraged some Muslim families. Paty’s killer was shot dead by police but the 18-year-old was said to have been an extremist.
Shortly after the attack in Nice, police in the city of Lyon arrested an Afghan who tried to board a tram while carrying a 12-inch knife. Around the same time in Saudi Arabia, police arrested a man for stabbing a guard outside the French consulate in Jeddah.
"Quite clearly, it is France that is being attacked," French President Emmanuel Macron said in Nice later that day. "If we are attacked, it is because of our values."
France’s government has raised the terror alert level to maximum nationwide, as Catholics around the world would celebrate All Saints Day on Sunday.
Macron had responded to Paty's killing earlier this month by announcing a crackdown on Muslim extremism in France and accused Islam of being in crisis around the world. His comments and defense of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons have sparked outrage in the Muslim world, including a call by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to boycott French products. Many Muslims in France say they suffer racism because of their religion. France has the European Union's largest Muslim population with about 5.7 million people of Muslim descent, or about 9% of the total population.
Thursday's attack was seen as linked to Macron's actions to clamp down on Islamic groups, his outspokenness about Islamic extremism, and the support the president and many French are showing for the right to display the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The images have become regular features at marches in solidarity with Paty, who showed the cartoons as part of a civics lesson on freedom of expression. Depictions of Mohammad can be a grave insult to Muslims because Islamic tradition forbids images of Mohammad and Allah.
Five years ago, those same cartoons led to the killing of 12 people after Islamic extremists attacked the Charlie Hebdo's offices. A trial in Paris is underway over that attack and another one at a Jewish store.
The Nice attack is emboldening Macron's political rivals on the right, in particular those supporting Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally party. Le Pen is considered Macron's chief rival in the next presidential elections in 2022.
“Jihad has been launched against France,” said Marion Marechal, a niece of Le Pen's and the head of the Institute of Social Sciences, Economy and Politics, on Twitter. “Threats by Erdogan, hateful demonstrations against our country in Muslim countries, a boycott of our products. Islamist cells are in the process of becoming reactivated.”
French television showed the streets surrounding the Nice cathedral cordoned off by police, as shocked residents watching squads of emergency medical workers and investigators coming and going from the site of the attacks.
The National Assembly, France's lower house of parliament, suspended a debate on a new nationwide lockdown Macron announced on Wednesday night and held a moment of silence for the victims.
Le Monde, a French national newspaper, said a woman and man were killed in the cathedral and that another woman was stabbed and died while hiding in a bar near the church. A person killed inside the church was believed to be the church warden, Estrosi said.
French media identified one of the victims as a 70-year-old woman who had been beheaded. The male victim is believed to have been Vincent Loques, a 55-year-old church sexton. The third victim is believed to have died in a nearby café after she was stabbed inside the church.
A witness told BFMTV, a French broadcaster, that he was selling croissants at a restaurant he runs in front of the church when a man in a state of shock entered and told him he’d seen a decapitated woman in the church.
“He just said: ‘Sir, there is a woman decapitated in the cathedral.’ That’s all. I was shocked. I’m still shaking,” the witness said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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