A man armed with a knife has killed three people – two women and a man – in a terrorist attack at a church in Nice on the Côte d’Azur.
The killings happened at 9am on Thursday inside the Notre-Dame Basilica in the city centre.
One of the victims was reported to be a 70-year-old woman who was beheaded in the church. A man, believed to be the church warden, was the second victim. A woman in her 40s was critically injured and managed to run from the church but died of her injuries.
Police described the scene as a “vision of horror”. The national anti-terrorist prosecutor said an investigation had been opened into “killings linked to a terrorist organisation”.
The attacker was shot in the shoulder by police and taken to hospital. He was said to be in his twenties, but had no identity papers on him, complicating police attempts to name him.
The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, said the man had said “Allahu Akbar” several times while he was being arrested and handcuffed by police.
He said one of the female victims had been “decapitated” but he had no details of how the two others were killed.
“We have two people killed inside the church … and a third person who was in a bar facing the church where she had taken refuge,” Estrosi said. “Enough is enough … we have to remove this Islamo-fascism from our territory.”
Also on Thursday, there were reports that a man carrying a knife and threatening passersby in the street at Avignon had been shot dead by police.
The shooting happened at 11.15am, just over two hours after the Nice attack. Police opened fire after the man reportedly threatened them.
Two weeks ago a history teacher, Samuel Paty, 47, was beheaded outside his secondary school after showing his class caricatures, including one of the prophet Muhammad, during a discussion on free speech.
His murder prompted the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to promise a crackdown on Islamist extremism, including shutting down mosques and other organisations accused of fomenting radicalism and violence.
The knifeman entered the church in Nice at 9am on Thursday and within 10 minutes had killed three people, one of them a sacristain (church warden). He was “neutralised” by police in the church at 9.10am.
A witness called David, who runs the Brioche Chaude restaurant, opposite the church, told BFMTV he had alerted the police.
“I was selling croissants when a man came in and said to me: ‘Sir, there’s a decapitated woman in the cathedral.’ I didn’t believe him at first but he repeated it. I went to the cathedral and saw the municipal police and called to them. They came quickly.
“I went back [to the restaurant] and pulled down the security grille.”
He added: “The person who came in [to the restaurant] was someone who had been in the cathedral who was very shocked. He just said: ‘Sir, there is a woman decapitated in the cathedral.’ That’s all. I was shocked. I’m still shaking.”
Police immediately locked down the city centre.
The attacker was not carrying identity papers, according to the police, who have taken fingerprints to establish if he is known to security services.
They are also examining CCTV recordings to establish the attacker’s movements beforehand. Nice is one of the few French cities with an extensive CCTV network.
David-Olivier Reverdy, of the French police union Alliance Police Nationale, said security forces had warned of a “heightened terrorist threat” over the last few days but that it was impossible to have officers everywhere to prevent attacks.
“We should recognise that police officers, municipal and national, were quickly at the scene and were able to neutralise the individual before he could cause any further injuries or deaths,” Reverdy said.
The Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (French Muslim Council, CFCM) condemned Thursday’s attack and called on Muslims to cancel their Mawlid celebrations – from 28-29 October to mark the birth of the Prophet – as a “sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their loved ones”.
Estrosi said the whole of Nice was deeply shocked: “Before it was a school professor, this time the Islamo-fascist barbarism chose to attack inside a church. Again, it is very symbolic,” Estrosi added.
President Macron arrived in Nice on Thursday lunchtime.
Also on Thursday, a Saudi man was arrested in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after injuring a guard at the French consulate with a “sharp tool”, state television reported.
“The French embassy strongly condemns this attack against a diplomatic outpost, which nothing could justify,” the embassy said in a statement, calling it a knife attack. The injured guard was taken to hospital. His life is not in danger.
The Avignon shooting happened in the Montfavet district. No pedestrians were injured. Police say they shouted to the man to drop his weapon, then fired a rubber bullet at him. They shot him with live ammunition after he threatened officers, a police spokesperson said. There is no confirmation that this is being treated as a terrorist attack.
Thursday’s attack in Nice was a grim reminder of the killing of Father Jacques Hamel in his Normandy church in July 2016. The 85-year-old priest’s throat was cut by two men with knives who also took two nuns and two worshippers hostage.
In July 2016 a terrorist drove a 19-tonne truck into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on Nice’s famous Promenade des Anglais, killing 86 people and injuring 458 others. The driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian living in France, was shot and killed by police.
After the killing of Paty at Conflans-Sainte-Honorine on 16 October, Macron said France was engaged in an “existential” battle against Islamist fundamentalism.
His comments and his support for the publication of controversial caricatures of Muhammad by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo have sparked angry protests across the Muslim world, with pictures of the president being burned and calls for a boycott of French goods.
The prime minister, Jean Castex, left the Assemblée National urgently on Thursday after a minute’s silence was held, and joined the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, in a “crisis cell” at the ministry.
Castex told the National Assembly he was raising the country’s security level.
“Three of our compatriots were killed by a man with a knife in abject circumstances. This cowardly and barbaric act grieves the entire nation,” Castex said.
There was applause as Castex added: “I wish to salute the intervention of our interior security forces, the national police, the RAID and particularly the municipal police, who rapidly neutralised the attacker.
“The government’s response will be firm, implacable and immediate. I have decided to upgrade the security level to signal an immediate terrorist threat across the whole country.”
Interior minister Gérald Darmanin sent an alert to all French police to increase security outside churches, cemeteries and other places of worship following the Nice attack.
At 3pm, church bells across France rang to mark the tragedy, including the main bell, the Emmanuel, at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.