France moves to ’emergency’ alert after three killed in church attack

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France’s prime minister has said the country is moving to the maximum “emergency” alert level after the killing of three people at a church in the southern city of Nice.

A man armed with a knife attacked two women and a man at the Notre Dame Basilica on Thursday morning before he was shot by police.

As he lay wounded, Nice’s mayor said the attacker repeated “Allah Akbar!” over and over. French authorities have opened a terrorism investigation.

The suspect was believed to be acting alone and police are not searching for other attackers, an official said.

Images on French media showed the neighbourhood locked down and surrounded by police and emergency vehicles. The killings took place less than half a mile from the site in 2016 where another attacker drive a truck into a Bastille Day crowd, killing dozens.

Sounds of explosions could be heard as sappers exploded suspicious objects.

Later in the morning in the southern city of Avignon an armed man was shot dead by police after he refused to drop his weapon and a Taser shot failed to stop him, a police official said.

Nice knife attack
Mayor of Nice Christian Estrosi near the scene where a knife attack took place (Mayor of Nice’s Twitter feed/PA)

There have been increased tensions in France over caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed published by satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, and after two other recent attacks in the country with links to the cartoons.

Less than two weeks ago, an attacker decapitated a French middle school teacher who showed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed for a class on free speech. Those caricatures were published by Charlie Hebdo and cited by the men who gunned down the newspaper’s editorial meeting in 2015.

In September, a man who had sought asylum in France attacked bystanders outside Charlie Hebdo’s former offices with a butcher knife.

France Attack
French police and firemen officers next to Notre Dame church after a knife attack (Alexis Gilli/AP)

Prime minister Mr Castex rushed from the hall to head to a crisis centre overseeing the aftermath of the attack.

Nice’s mayor Christian Estrosi said the attacker shouted “Allahu akbar!” repeatedly as police apprehended him and that “the meaning of his gesture left no doubt”.

Speaking to reporters in Nice, Mr Estrosi said two people were killed inside the church and that the church caretaker was among those attacked.

He appealed to the citizens of Nice to remain united.

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