An attacker with a knife killed at least three people at a church in the French city of Nice on Thursday, officials said, in an incident the city’s mayor described as “terrorism”.
Mayor Christian Estrosi, a former MP with the right-wing Republicans party, said on Twitter that police had detained the attacker after shooting him.
Estrosi tweeted: “I can confirm everything suggests this was a terror attack in the Notre-Dame Basilica,” in central Nice.
He claimed that two women and one man were dead. One woman took refuge in a nearby bar where she succumbed to her injuries. The other was killed in the most “horrible” way, he said, “like the professor” – an apparent reference to the recent attack on French teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded in broad daylight.
Later, in a separate development, police killed a suspect in the southern French city Avignon who they said had threatened passersby with a handgun.
In a third development on Thursday, amid growing tensions between France and the Muslim world, Saudi state-run media said a man was detained after he stabbed and slightly wounded guard at the French Consulate in Jeddah.
President Emmanuel Macron was heading to the city, while Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin held a crisis meeting as he warned people to avoid the site of the attack.
A representative of the French Council for the Muslim Faith 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 spokesman said.
The holiday is the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, which is being celebrated Thursday.
Officials across the political spectrum offered their sympathies.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the left-wing France Insoumise party, tweeted: “Thoughts of compassion for the victims of the attack in #Nice.”
Anne Hidalgo, the left-wing mayor of Paris, said: “My first thoughts go to the victims and their loved ones affected by this horrible attack. The people of Nice, as well as it’s mayor @cestrosi, can count on support from the city of Paris.”
But Marine Le Pen, a leading far-right figure, adopted a provocative tone, calling for the “eradication of Islamism from our soil”.
Attentat à la basilique de Nice : mes premières pensées vont aux victimes et à leurs proches touchées par cette horrible attaque. Les Niçoises et les Niçois, ainsi que son Maire, @cestrosi, peuvent compter sur le soutien de la Ville de @Paris.
— Anne Hidalgo (@Anne_Hidalgo) October 29, 2020
The anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office said an investigation had been opened into an attack with a terrorist connection.
Meanwhile, the lower house of parliament suspended a debate on new coronavirus restrictions – the country will go into a fresh lockdown on Friday, and held a moment of silence for the victims.
Thursday’s attack comes while France is still reeling from the killing of Paty, by a man of Chechen origin.
The attacker had said he wanted to punish Paty for showing pupils caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a civics lesson.
In a comment on recent beheadings in France, the Kremlin said on Thursday it was unacceptable to kill people, but also wrong to insult the feelings of religious believers.
It was not immediately clear what the motive was for the Nice attack, or if there was any connection to the cartoons, which Muslims consider deeply offensive.
Since Paty’s killing, French officials – backed by many citizens – have re-asserted the right to display the cartoons, and the images have been widely displayed at marches in solidarity with the slain teacher.
That has prompted an outpouring of anger in parts of the Muslim world, with some governments accusing French leader Emmanuel Macron of pursuing an anti-Islam agenda. Muslims deeply revere the Prophet and find the caricatures, which often link Islam to “terrorism”, offensive.
Rebecca Rosman contributed to this report from Paris.