Police in Nice are questioning a 47-year-old man reported to have been in contact with a suspected knifeman just hours before he carried out an attack in which three people were killed.
The man was taken into custody late on Thursday evening. Police have given no more details and said there is currently no evidence that the knifeman had an accomplice. The suspected attacker, 21-year-old Brahim Aouissaoui from Tunisia, was shot by police and is in a serious condition in hospital in Nice.
The development came as France stepped up security across the country and ministers and officials warned further attacks were likely. “We are in a war against an enemy that is both inside and outside,” the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, told RTL radio. “We need to understand that there have been and there will be other events such as these terrible attacks.”
As the nation reeled from the murders, tens of thousands joined protests against France in countries from Pakistan and Bangladesh to Lebanon and the Palestinian territories on Friday. Effigies of the French president, Emmanuel Macron were burned over his defence of the right to publish caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, a position that has sparked anger across the Muslim world.
The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, defended free speech on Friday but added that it was “not without limits” and should not “arbitrarily and needlessly hurt” certain communities.
“We will always defend freedom of expression,” Trudeau said in response to a question about the right to show a caricature of the prophet Muhammad, as Charlie Hebdo magazine did.
“But freedom of expression is not without limits. We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily or unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet.”
French investigators are attempting to establish exactly how and when the suspect arrived in Nice after being refused permission to remain in Italy on 9 October. Aouissaoui’s family told Tunisian journalists on Friday that he had phoned them the day before the attack to say he had just reached Nice and was planning to sleep rough in the city overnight. “He called us Wednesday evening to say he had arrived in France,” a relative at the family home near Sfax said.
On Friday, the first day of France’s new Covid-19 lockdown, Macron held an emergency defence council meeting. He announced on Thursday that France’s security threat alert had been raised to the highest level. He also said an extra 4,000 soldiers were being deployed across the country as part of Operation Sentinelle, bringing the total number of troops mobilised to 7,000. Security has been stepped up at churches and other religious sites ahead of All Saints’ Day on Sunday.
After the meeting, Darmanin said an additional 3,500 gendarmes were also being drafted in to protect schools when they open after the half-term holiday on Monday, and that 120 extra police would be sent to Nice.
The foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has told French citizens living abroad to be aware that “the threat is everywhere”. He said instructions would be given to French ambassadors to step up security at their embassies.
Nice’s police chief, Richard Gianotti said: “Any symbol of the republic or Christianity is a potential target. We have to be vigilant, we have to be attentive.”
The three people who died in the attack were a 60-year-old woman who was almost decapitated, 55-year-old Vincent Loques, who was the church sexton, and Simone Barreto Silva, a 44-year-old Brazilian-born mother-of-three. Mourners lit candles and prayed on Friday to honour the victims.
Local police officers have been praised for their quick response in confronting the attacker. The incident lasted 28 minutes and officers afterwards described the scene as a “vision of horror”.
Gianotti, said six of his officers were inside the basilica “almost immediately” after the alarm was raised. A police patrol was passing the basilica at the time and was approached by a person who had come out of the church saying someone had been “seriously stabbed”, he said.
The patrol was quickly joined by reinforcements. One team went in through the main entrance and a second entered via the sacristy door. “Those that went in the main entrance saw the 60-year-old woman who was stabbed on the ground. Those who went into the sacristy came immediately across the man who was holding a knife,” Gianotti told BFMTV. “He had just killed three people, he was shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’. One officer shot but missed him. It was done in legitimate defence.
“The corridor was quite narrow and he [the attacker] continued to advance. He was quite determined. A second police officer shot at him and brought him down, neutralised him.”
Gianotti said two officers used their guns, and they fired around 10 times. “He was neutralised on the ground. The only words he pronounced were ‘Allahu Akbar’.”
The police chief said his officers had no idea at that point whether the attacker was wearing a suicide vest or had an accomplice. “We checked him on the ground, he was not wearing a vest. A second municipal police team arrived rapidly with a national police team. It’s hard to imagine but it happened very quickly, in three or four minutes.” Macron was among those who acknowledged the officers’ bravery.
Gianotti said: “When they entered they were going into the unknown. They took measure of the situation and the legal framework of such an intervention … it was a situation of legitimate defence, and they knew they could fire their weapons. They saved lives by being at the scene almost instantly.”
He said Nice police were well equipped with bulletproof vests, the means to fire rubber bullets and semi-automatic 9mm Glock pistols with 15 bullets.