A knife-wielding attacker shouting “Allahu Akbar” beheaded a woman and killed two other people in what French officials described as a terrorist act at a church in the French city of Nice on Thursday while a gunman was shot dead by police in a separate incident.

Within hours of the Nice attack, police killed a man who had threatened passersby with a handgun in Montfavet, 250 kilometres northwest of Nice near the southern French city of Avignon. He was also shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), according to radio station Europe 1.

A defiant President Emmanuel Macron, declaring that France had been subject to an Islamist terrorist attack, said he would deploy thousands more soldiers to protect key French sites, such as places of worship and schools.

Speaking from the scene, he said France had been attacked “over our values, for our taste for freedom, for the ability on our soil to have freedom of belief.”

“And I say it with lots of clarity again today: we will not give any ground.”

France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said the attacker was a Tunisan around the age of 20 who entered France from Italy. Jean-François Ricard told a press conference late Thursday that the man arrived in Italy by reaching the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa on Sept. 20, and travelled to Paris on Oct. 9.

An investigation was opened for murder and attempted murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise, a common term for such crimes. The prosecutor said the attacker, who was born in 1999, was not on the radar of intelligence agencies as a potential threat.

A Muslim holy book and two phones were among the items found on the attacker. Also found was a knife with a 17-centimetre blade used in the attack, Ricard said. A bag with the attacker’s personal affairs was found containing two unused knives.

Tunisia’s anti-terrorism court prosecutor began a forensic investigation into “the suspicion that a Tunisian committed a terrorist operation abroad,” Mohsen Dali, spokesperson for the specialised counter-militancy court, said in Tunis.

In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, state television reported that a Saudi man had been arrested in the Red Sea city of Jeddah after attacking and injuring a guard at the French consulate. The French Embassy said he was in hospital after a knife assault though his life was not in danger.

Within hours of the Nice attack, French police killed a man who had threatened passersby with a handgun in Montfavet, near the southern city of Avignon.

France’s Le Figaro newspaper quoted a prosecution source as saying the man was undergoing psychiatric treatment, and that they did not believe there was a terrorism motive.

Similar to attack on teacher

Nice’s mayor, Christian Estrosi, who described the attack in his city as terrorism, said on Twitter it had happened in or near Notre Dame church and was similar to an attack earlier this month. 

“The methods match, without doubt, those used against the brave teacher in Conflans Sainte Honorine, Samuel Paty,” he said, referring to a French teacher beheaded earlier this month in an attack in a suburb of Paris.

A man prays in the street outside the Notre Dame church in Nice on Thursday evening. (Daniel Cole/The Associated Press)

Estrosi said the attacker had repeatedly shouted the phrase “Allahu Akbar,” even after he had been detained by police.

At around 9 a.m. local time a man armed with a knife entered the church and slit the throat of the sexton, beheaded an elderly woman and badly wounded a third woman, according to a police source.

The sexton and the elderly woman died at the scene, the third woman managed to make it out of the church into a nearby cafe, where she died, Estrosi told reporters. None of the victims has so far been named.

“The suspected knife attacker was shot by police while being detained, he is on his way to hospital, he is alive,” Estrosi said.

“Enough is enough,” the mayor said. “It’s time now for France to exonerate itself from the laws of peace in order to definitively wipe out Islamo-fascism from our territory.”

Reuters journalists at the scene said police armed with automatic weapons had put up a security cordon around the church, which is on Nice’s Jean Medecin Avenue, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare. Ambulances and fire service vehicles were also at the scene.

U.S. President Donald Trump released a statement on Twitter following the attack, stating: “America stands with our oldest Ally in this fight. These Radical Islamic terrorist attacks must stop immediately. No country, France or otherwise can long put up with it!” 

Condemnations of the attack also came from Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this week slammed Macron and France over displays of the Prophet Muhammad.

Turkish Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said Islam could not be used in the name of terrorism, adding: “We call on the French leadership to avoid further inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims and focus, instead, on finding the perpetrators of this and other acts of violence.”

International leaders including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the Nice attack and expressed solidarity with France.

The foreign ministry of Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, said “extremist acts” such as that in Nice “contravene all religions, while stressing “the importance of avoiding all practices which generate hatred, violence and extremism.”

Minute of silence observed

In Paris, lawmakers in the National Assembly observed a minute’s silence in solidarity with the victims. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, said the people of Nice “can count on the support of the city of Paris and of Parisians.”

A representative of the French Council for the Muslim Faith also 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 holiday is the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, celebrated on Thursday.

Police said three people were confirmed to have died in the attack and several were injured. The French anti-terrorist prosecutor’s department said it had been asked to investigate.

A police source said a woman was decapitated. French far-right politician Marine Le Pen also spoke of a decapitation having occurred in the attack.

French consulate attack in Saudi Arabia

The attack comes while France is still reeling from the beheading earlier this month of middle school teacher Paty by a man of Chechen origin.

The attacker had said he wanted to punish Paty for showing pupils cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a civics lesson.

It was not immediately clear if Thursday’s attack was connected to the cartoons, which some Muslims consider to be blasphemous.

The French consulate in the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah is seen on Thursday, where a Saudi citizen reportedly wounded a guard in a knife attack. (Mohammed Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images)

Since Paty’s killing, French officials — backed by many ordinary citizens — have re-asserted the right to display the cartoons, and the images have been widely displayed at marches in solidarity with the killed teacher.

That has prompted an outpouring of anger in parts of the Muslim world, with some governments accusing Macron of pursuing an anti-Islam agenda.

In Saudi Arabia on Thursday, state television reported that a Saudi man had been arrested in the city of Jeddah after attacking and injuring a guard at the French consulate.

The French Embassy said the consulate was subject to an “attack by knife which targeted a guard,” adding the guard was taken to hospital and his life was not in danger.

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