Assailants loyal to Islamic State forced an elderly priest to his knees before slitting his throat and took several worshippers hostage in a French church on Tuesday before police shot the attackers dead.
It was the latest in a wave of attacks in Europe inspired by the Islamist militant group based in Iraq and Syria that is on the defensive against a U.S.-led military coalition in which France is a major partner.
The knifemen entered the church during morning mass near the northern city of Rouen, northwest of Paris, killing Father Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old parish priest, and taking four other people hostage, one of whom was seriously wounded.
“They forced him to his knees and he tried to defend himself and that’s when the drama began,” Sister Danielle, who escaped as the attackers slayed the priest, told RMC radio.
“They filmed themselves. It was like a sermon in Arabic around the altar,” the nun added.
Police shot the attackers dead as they emerged from the church in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.
Speaking at the scene of the attack, President Francois Hollande said Islamic State had declared war on France, which should “use all its means” within the law to fight the group.
The president called it a “dreadful terrorist attack” and told reporters the attackers had pledged allegiance to Islamic State, against which France has launched air strikes in Syria and Iraq. News agency Amaq, which is affiliated with Islamic State, said two of its “soldiers” were involved.
“The threat remains very high,” Hollande said.
The White House condemned the attack and commended the French police for their “quick and decisive response.”
The attack was the latest in a string of deadly assaults including the mass killing in Nice, southern France, on Bastille Day 12 days ago and four incidents in Germany, most recently a suicide bombing at a concert in Ansbach on Sunday.
Islamic State has called on its supporters to take action with any available weapons targeting countries it has been fighting.
The anti-terrorist unit of the Paris prosecutor’s office is investigating the attack. Police said one person had been arrested.
Several French media reported that one of the knifemen was a local man who had spent a year in jail on his return from Turkey after being intercepted trying to travel to Syria, but had been freed on bail with an electronic tag pending trial for alleged terrorism offences.
The prosecutor’s office said the identification of the two suspects was still underway and it was too early to jump to conclusions about a possible link.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is expected to enter a conservative primary soon for next year’s presidential election, jumped on the latest incident to accuse the Socialist government of being soft on terrorism.
“We must be merciless,” Sarkozy said in a statement to reporters. “The legal quibbling, precautions and pretexts for insufficient action are not acceptable. I demand that the government implement without delay the proposals we presented months ago. There is no more time to be wasted.”
The center-right opposition wants the government to put all Islamist suspects subject to a confidential security notice under administrative detention to avert potential attacks.
Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is also expected to run for the presidency, said both major parties had failed on security. “All those who have governed us for 30 years bear an immense responsibility. It’s revolting to watch them bickering!” she said on Twitter.
Hollande insisted that the government must stick to the rule of law, which he said was the hallmark of a democracy.
Pope Francis condemned what he called a “barbarous killing”.
“The fact that this episode took place in a church, killing a priest, a minister of the Lord and involving the faithful, is something that affects us profoundly,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.
The attack heaped yet more pressure on Hollande to regain control of national security, with France already under a state of emergency 10 months ahead of a presidential election in which he is widely expected to seek a second term.
The Normandy attack came less than two weeks after a 31-year-old Tunisian, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, plowed his heavy goods truck into a crowd of revelers in the French Riviera city of Nice, killing 84 people. Islamic State claimed that attack.
“Everything is being done to trigger a war of religions,” tweeted Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former conservative prime minister who now heads the Senate’s foreign affairs committee.
Hollande visited the Normandy town with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, meeting survivors of the church attack and members of the emergency services.
Cazeneuve has come under fire from conservative politicians for not doing enough to prevent the Nice attack, which prompted lawmakers to approve a six-month extension of emergency rule.
The Star goes on to report:
Attacker who slit throat of elderly French priest was on watch list, wore electronic tag
One attacker was identified as 19-year-old Adel Kermiche; the other is still being identified. Daesh has described both assailants as “soldiers” of the militant group.
SAINT-ETIENNE-DU-ROUVRAY, FRANCE—Two attackers backing Daesh, also known as ISIS or ISIL, stormed a village church during mass in northern France on Tuesday, taking hostages and slitting the throat of a 86-year-old priest before police commandos shot and killed the assailants, authorities said.
Daesh’s Amaq news agency described the attackers as “soldiers” of the militant group, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist activity. But it was not immediately clear whether the assailants had direct contact with Daesh.
At least one of the attackers appeared to be on a watch list, which required him to wear an electronic tag to allow security officials to track his movements, said a police official cited by The Associated Press. The Associated Press said the official spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose information about the case.
Prosecutor François Molins told The Associated Press the attackers had fake explosives and cried “Allahu akbar” during the attack. He said the attackers also used nuns as human shields.
One attacker was identified as 19-year-old Adel Kermiche. Molins said the other is still being identified.
He also said a minor has been detained in the investigation, who is believed to be a 16-year-old younger brother of someone wanted by police for trying to go to Syria or Iraq in 2015.
A French news channel, BFM-TV, carried a similar report, adding that the attacker tried to reach Syria, but was turned back at the Turkish border and was then jailed by French authorities. He was released in March, the report said.
Police raids are still under way.
French President François Hollande — who travelled to the church near the city of Rouen in the Normandy region — said the attackers had pledged allegiance to Daesh.
The assault also will likely put further pressure on European security officials less than two weeks after 84 people were killed in a terrorist attack, apparently inspired by Daesh, in Nice, France. In addition, Daesh claimed a connection with two attackers in Germany who wounded 20 people this month. Two other attacks in Germany that killed 10 people in the past week had no evident connection with the group.
Authorities in Europe had previously concentrated on suspected militants who returned from Daesh-held territory in Syria or Iraq. But many recent attacks appear to have been carried out by individuals radicalized by Daesh propaganda and who pledged loyalty on their own.
In Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, about 56 kilometres southeast of the port of Le Havre, French soldiers patrolled the narrow streets and mourners gathered in the main square. Police cordoned off the area around the church, whose main entrance is an arched wooden door under a stone tower capped by a peaked roof.
Another person held by the hostage-takers at the church suffered life-threatening injuries, said Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet.
Alexandre Joly, 44, described the slain priest — identified by church officials as Jacques Hamel — as “like an attentive grandfather” in the village, on the banks of the Seine as it begins to snake toward the English Channel.
“He loved marrying young people,” said Joly. “He saw a purpose in it, and he had so much wisdom to impart.”
The area also reflected the multicultural side of France. A mosque in a nearby town was built for Muslims in the region, including families that moved from North Africa decades ago.
Fatima, 58, an Algerian-born woman who said she lived in the village for 40 years, joined the crowds in the main square to pay homage “for the memory of the priest.”
“We are with him,” said Fatima, who only gave her first name. “All Muslims are with him.”
France remains under an extended state of emergency after a truck rampage through Bastille Day crowds in the Riviera city of Nice on July 14, killing 84 people and injuring more than 300.
Hollande said the country needed to use “all means” against Daesh, but gave no details on possible new crackdowns or expansion of French support to the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the militants’ strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, denounced the “barbarous killing” of the French priest.
Lombardi said Pope Francis was shaken by “the pain and horror of this absurd violence” and “condemned, in the most radical way, any form of hate.”
Daesh has carried out systematic persecution and abuses against religious minorities in Syria and Iraq, including Yazidi villages and Christian communities that date back to the early centuries of the faiths. In some areas, groups of Yazidi women have been forced into slavery by the militants.
Last year, the Vatican’s top diplomat at the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, decried “genocide” against Christians and other religious minorities at the hands of Daesh.
The militants also have destroyed pre-Islamic temples and other ancient sites in Syria and Iraq — including a more than 1,400-year-old Christian monastery near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
But attacks linked to the group in the West and elsewhere have so far concentrated on public places and tourist areas.
Brandet, the Interior Ministry spokesman, called the bloodshed here “obviously a drama for the Catholic community, for the Christian community.”
French officials have linked at least one previous suspect with plotting a possible church attack.
In April 2015, an Algerian man, Sid Ahmed Ghlam, was arrested in connection with the slaying of woman. He was accused of putting together a cache of weapons and body armour. French authorities claim he planned to attack a church in the Paris suburb of Villejuif.