French police block access to Notre Dame basilica in Nice after three people were killed © Valery Hache/AFP/Getty

A man with a knife killed three people in a church in the southern French city of Nice on Thursday, in what President Emmanuel Macron called the latest Islamist terror attack to afflict the country.

Mr Macron said up to 7,000 soldiers would be deployed in the coming days to protect churches for All Saints’ Day, as well as other religious institutions and schools. The government announced the highest level of terrorism alert.

“It’s France that has been attacked,” Mr Macron said in Nice. “Our country has been hit by an Islamist terror attack.” He called for national unity and said France was being targeted “for our values, for our taste for liberty. I say it clearly once again, today — we will not give any ground.”

The victims included the church’s sexton and two women parishioners. Officials said the attacker slashed their throats. Police quickly stopped the assailant, who was shot during the arrest.

According to Jean-François Ricard, the French anti-terrorism prosecutor, the attacker was a Tunisian born in 1999 who entered Europe via the Italian island of Lampedusa, an entry point for many illegal immigrants from north Africa, in September.

He had changed his clothes on arriving at Nice railway station and walked to the church where he carried out the attack. Four policemen then confronted him and shot him when he ran towards them shouting “Allahu akbar” [God is great], Mr Ricard said.

The man, who was carrying an Italian Red Cross identity document, was injured and taken to hospital. A Koran was found at the scene.

Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice, said: “There is no doubt of the attacker’s intentions. He was saying ‘Allahu akbar’.” Mr Estrosi added that the time had come to “definitively annihilate Islamo-fascism . . . Enough is enough”. 

The Nice killing follows a series of incidents over the past decade linked to the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Earlier this month a Chechen refugee beheaded teacher Samuel Paty in the street outside his school, saying he was taking revenge for Paty’s showing of two of the caricatures to pupils in a lesson on freedom of speech.

Mr Macron’s condemnation of Islamist extremism in France, including the homage he paid to Paty at a ceremony in Paris, and his defence of secularism and free speech have triggered angry condemnations from some Muslim leaders, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

In 2016 Nice was hit by a terrorist attack in which 84 people died when a truck was driven into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day.

Map showing Nice, France and Notre Dame basilica

The attack comes as France is about to begin its second lockdown to curb coronavirus and is the third knife attack carried out by Islamist extremists in the past month.

France was already on edge after the beheading of Paty, who had been criticised by Muslim parents and Islamists on social media before he was killed. France has the largest Muslim population — estimated at about 5m — among western European countries.

In Paris, the National Assembly held a minute’s silence for the victims of Thursday’s attack. Across the country, churches rang their bells in unison to commemorate the victims.

President Emmanuel Macron speaks to the media at the scene of the knife attack in Nice © Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The latest attacks have coincided with the trial in Paris of 14 alleged accomplices of the gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo’s offices in January 2015 at the start of what turned into a particularly grim year for Islamist terror in France. A total of 149 people were killed in shootings and suicide bombings.

Several leaders of Muslim-majority nations, including Turkey, have taken exception to Mr Macron’s stand against extremism and his defence of free speech — including the right to blaspheme. In some countries in the Middle East and south Asia boycotts have been launched against French products.

In the Saudi port city of Jeddah, police arrested a man accused of attacking a security guard at the French consulate. The guard was taken to hospital with minor injuries. The French embassy in Saudi Arabia condemned the attack, warning its nationals to adopt a high level of alertness and caution.

Police and firefighters arrive at the scene of the attack at Notre Dame basilica  © Eric Gaillard/Reuters

The Saudi government earlier this week condemned the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but did not call for any action. The statement, carried by state media, also condemned all acts of terrorism.

Turkey, which irked French officials with its belated condemnation of the attack on Paty amid a diplomatic feud with Paris, was swift to respond to the events in Nice.

“Those who carry out such a savage attack in a sacred place of worship clearly have no religious, humanitarian or moral values,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.

“We stand in solidarity with the people of France, especially the inhabitants of Nice, against terror and violence.”

Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr and Laura Pitel

Letter in response to this article:

Senseless acts do not defend Islam / From Lu’ayy Minwer al-Rimawi, Former Visiting Fellow, Islamic Legal Studies Programme, Harvard Law School, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, UK

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