Church attack in Nice: What we know so far

Candles and flowers have been laid as a tribute on the doorsteps of the Notre-Dame de l’Assomption Basilica in Nice October 30, 2020. — AFP pic
Candles and flowers have been laid as a tribute on the doorsteps of the Notre-Dame de l’Assomption Basilica in Nice October 30, 2020. — AFP pic

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NICE, Oct 31 — A knife attacker who killed three people, cutting the throat of two, inside a church in Nice on the French Riviera on Thursday is a young Tunisian migrant from Sfax who arrived in Europe only last month, according to French prosecutors.

The killings came two weeks after a French teacher was decapitated outside his school north of Paris by a suspected Islamist extremist. The teacher had shown his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed during a lesson on freedom of speech.

Here is what we know so far:

What happened?

At 8.29am French time (0729 GMT) a man with a knife began attacking people praying inside the Basilica of Notre-Dame in the heart of the Mediterranean city.

The attacker had a copy of the Koran, three knives and two mobile phones with him, France’s anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard told a news conference.

In a near half-hour frenzy, the assailant used a 17-centimetre (six-and-a-half inch) knife to cut the throat of a 60-year-old woman, who died inside the church.

The body of a man, a 54-year-old church employee, was found nearby inside the basilica — his throat had also been slit.

Another woman, a 44-year-old who had fled the church at 8:54 am to a nearby restaurant, died shortly afterwards from multiple knife wounds.

The killer was shot and wounded by police who arrived quickly at the scene.

Videos seen by AFP show he was hit at least six times.

Ricard said police fired afer the man moved towards them in a threatening manner.

Even as he was being arrested the man continued to shout “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), before he was rushed to the city’s Pasteur hospital. Ricard described his condition overnight as life threatening.

Who is the suspect?

The 21-year-old Tunisian suspect only arrived in France earlier this month after coming to Europe clandestinely on a migrant boat via the Italian island of Lampedusa on September 20, according to Ricard.

The prosecutor added he had then arrived in the southern Italian port of Bari on October 9.

An Italian interior ministry source told AFP he had received an order to leave Italy within a week after arriving in Lampedusa.

The suspected knifeman called himself “Brahim” on his arrest.

According to his family — who AFP met at their home in Tunisia — and the Tunisian prosecutor general, his name is Brahim Issaoui. Tunisian judicial sources said an investigation has been opened, adding he has a criminal record relating to violent behaviour and drug dealing.

His brother Yacine Issaoui said Brahim had left Tunisia some six weeks ago and had arrived late Wednesday in France. “He said he had gone to France as the work was better” there, Yacine explained, adding he had spoken to his sibling Wednesday evening.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told broadcaster RTL yesterday that French intelligence had nothing on file relating to him.

Issaoui hails from a large family of seemingly modest means living in the central city of Sfax. His mother said he repaired motorcycles and described how he had taken to prayer over the past two-and-a-half years.

“He didn’t go out and didn’t communicate with others,” she told AFP.

Who were the victims?

The killer’s first victim was a 60-year-old woman, who he tried to behead.

The dead man was Vincent Loques, a 54-year-old father of two girls who served as the basilica’s sacristan, looking after the church, according to Canon Philippe Asso, its most senior cleric.

The other woman was Brazilian national Simone Barreto Silva, a 44-year-old mother of three, who was resident in France, according to the Brazilian foreign ministry.

“Tell my children I love them,” she managed to say before her death, according to French cable channel BFM TV.

State of investigation

The French authorities are treating the case as a terror attack, with the anti-terrorist prosecutor immediately opening an inquiry into “murder and attempted murder linked to a terrorist enterprise”. President Emmanuel Macron called it an “Islamist terrorist attack”.

Late Thursday, a man aged 47 was taken into custody suspected of having been in contact with the assailant prior to the attack, a judicial source said yesterday. Another source close to the investigation said the man was not linked to the attack. — AFP

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