Four preschool-aged children have been seriously wounded in a knife attack at a park in the French Alps.
A suspect, identified by police as a 31-year-old Syrian, was detained in connection with the Thursday morning attack. French authorities said he had recently been refused asylum in France, because Sweden had already granted him permanent residency and refugee status a decade ago.
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Witnesses reported scenes of terror as the man roamed the park, ambushing victims with his blade.
“I said to the police, ‘Shoot him, kill him! He’s stabbing everyone,'” said Anthony Le Tallec, a former professional football player who was jogging when he came across the attacker.
Lead prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis said the man’s motives were unknown but did not appear to be related to “terrorism”. He was armed with a folding knife, she said.
She said all four children suffered life-threatening knife wounds. The youngest is 22 months old, two of the children are two years old, and the oldest is age three, she said. Two of them are French, the other two were tourists – one British, the other Dutch, she said.
Two adults also suffered knife wounds – life-threatening for one of them, the prosecutor said. One of the adults was hurt both with the attacker’s knife and later by a shot fired by police as they were making the arrest, Bonnet-Mathis said.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said the country was in a state of “shock”.
A chilling video of several policemen overpowering the suspect has been widely shared on social media.
“He clearly targeted the babies,” a witness named Ferdinand told BFM TV.
“Mothers were crying, everybody was running,” said George, owner of a nearby restaurant.
Several people described Le Paquier park as an usually tranquil place popular with tourists because of its stunning views of Lake Annecy and the mountains.
“It’s a place where babysitters and parents take young children to play. I often see around 15 toddlers there in the morning, and the atmosphere is fantastic,” said Yohan, who works at an ice-cream parlour just opposite the park.
Le Tallec, who played football for Liverpool FC, said he was jogging around the waters of Lake Annecy in the foothills of the Alps when a wave of panicked bystanders rushed past in the opposite direction.
One mother urged him to turn and run.
Confused, Le Tallec said he kept jogging through the park but soon saw a man heading his way with police officers in pursuit but struggling to catch up.
“I see that he’s heading straight for a group of elderly men and women. He attacks one grandpa, stabs him once. The cops can’t catch him, so I tell the cops, ‘Shoot him,'” Le Tallec continued.
Attaque d’une lâcheté absolue ce matin dans un parc à Annecy. Des enfants et un adulte sont entre la vie et la mort. La Nation est sous le choc. Nos pensées les accompagnent ainsi que leurs familles et les secours mobilisés.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) June 8, 2023
National Assembly Speaker Yael Braun-Pivet said there was “nothing more abominable than to attack children” while the French Parliament observed a minute of silence.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said the attack, which took place about 9:45am (07:45 GMT), was “every parent’s nightmare”.
“One witness said that she saw the man lunging at children in a pram, so people are incredibly shocked here,” she added.
Annecy is a quiet city of 135,000 people that lies south of Geneva, Switzerland.
Dominique Griziaux said he was at a nearby beach when the wail of sirens filled the air. The attack has left him feeling sick inside, he said.
“You put yourself in the place of parents and grandparents put through this drama,” Griziaux, an Annecy resident, said, adding that an attack on such young children was “just unthinkable”.
“You’d never think this could be possible in such a peaceful, bucolic environment as Annecy.”
France has been shocked by a number of violent incidents over the past few months, including the fatal stabbing in May of a nurse in the northern town of Reims. Also last month, a drunk driver accidentally killed three policemen.
Macron has denounced what he calls a “de-civilisation process” in the country, while opposition lawmakers say his government has been too lax on law and order.