Three people are now confirmed dead – including one woman who was decapitated – following a terror attack in the French city of Nice, the mayor Christian Estrosi says.
A second attack has been reported in the southern French city of Avignon, with an armed man was shot dead by police after he refused to drop his weapon. It is not yet known if it is linked to the attack in Nice.
The Nice assailant, who was armed with a knife, was wounded by police and hospitalised after the killings at the Notre Dame Church, less than 1km from the site in 2016 where another attacker plowed a truck into a Bastille Day crowd, killing dozens.
Thursday’s attacker was believed to be acting alone and police are not searching for other assailants, said two police officials, who were not authorised to be publicly named.
“It seems that, according to the first findings of the police, the woman who was inside the church has been decapitated. For the other victims, we cannot say anything at the moment,” said Mr Estrosi, who told BFM television that three people had died, two inside the church and a third who fled but was mortally wounded.
“He cried ‘Allah Akbar’ over and over, even after he was injured. The meaning of his gesture left no doubt.”
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into the killings, which marked the third attack since the opening in September of a terrorism trial over the January 2015 killings at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket.
Images on French media showed the neighbourhood locked down and surrounded by police and emergency vehicles.
Sounds of explosions could be heard as sappers exploded suspicious objects.
The lower house of parliament suspended a debate on France’s new virus restrictions and held a moment of silence Thursday for the victims.
The prime minister rushed from the hall to a crisis centre overseeing the aftermath of the Nice attack.
President Emmanuel Macron was headed to Nice later in the day.
The French Council of the Muslim Faith has strongly denounced the incident and called on French Muslims to cancel Thursday’s Mawlid celebrations.
Mawlid is celebrated by some Muslims to mark the birthday of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed.
“I strongly condemn the terrorist attack that took place near the Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice. As a sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their families, I call on the Muslims of France to cancel all the Mawlid festivities,” the council stated in a post on its Twitter account.
Less than two weeks ago, an assailant decapitated a French middle school teacher who showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed 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.