REUTERS – An attacker at the wheel of a heavy truck ploughed into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in the French city of Nice, killing at least 84 people and wounding scores more in what President Francois Hollande called a terrorist act.
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The driver, identified by a police source as a 31-year-old Tunisian-born Frenchman, also appeared to open fire before officers shot him dead. The man was not on the watch list of French intelligence services, but was known to the police in connection with common crimes such as theft and violence, the source said. French media identifed him as local resident Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel.
The Daily Mail reported that the assailant had parked the van at the site of the attack nine hours earlier, after having hired it two days beforehand. He was allowed to leave the vehicle at the site, which was closed to traffic, after he told police officers that he was delivering ice cream. According to reports, the attacker had with him in the van an assault rifle, a pistol and a grenade, which weren’t discovered by police despite the fact that officers questioned him.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said 18 people were in a critical condition after the attack on Thursday night, when the white truck zigzagged along the seafront Promenade des Anglais as a fireworks display marking the French national day ended just after 10:30 P.M.
According to one city official, the truck careered on for up to two kilometers. Several children were among the dead.
There had been no claim of responsibility on Friday morning, and the attack seemed so far to be the work of a lone assailant.
"People went down like ninepins," Jacques, who runs Le Queenie restaurant on the seafront, told France Info radio.
Hollande said in a pre-dawn address that he was calling up military and police reservists to relieve forces worn out by enforcing a state of emergency begun in November after Islamic State gunmen and suicide bombers struck Paris entertainment spots on a Friday evening, killing 130 people.
Only hours earlier he had announced the emergency would be lifted by the end of July. Following the attack, he said it would be extended by a further three months.
"France is filled with sadness by this new tragedy," Hollande said. "There's no denying the terrorist nature of this attack."
Major events in France have been guarded by troops and armed police since the November 13 attacks. But it appeared to have taken many minutes to halt the progress of the truck as it tore along pavements and a pedestrian zone.
One witness said she thought the attacker was firing a gun as he drove.
"I saw this enormous white truck go past at top speed," said Suzy Wargniez, a local woman aged 65 who was watching from a cafe on the promenade. "It was shooting, shooting."
A local government official said weapons and grenades were later found inside the rented vehicle.
Nice-Matin newspaper said on Twitter that police were searching the attacker's home in the Nice neighborhood of Abattoirs. It gave no source of the information.
After the Paris attacks, Islamic State said France and all nations following its path would remain at the top of its list of targets as long as they continued "their crusader campaign," referring to action against the group in Iraq and Syria.
France is conducting airstrikes and special forces operations against Islamic State, as well as training Iraqi government and Kurdish forces.
"We will further strengthen our actions in Syria and Iraq," Hollande said, calling the tragedy on the day that France marks the 1789 revolutionary storming of the Bastille prison in Paris an attack on liberty by fanatics who despised human rights.
Dawn broke on Friday with pavements smeared with dried blood. Smashed children's strollers, an uneaten baguette and other debris were strewn about the promenade. Small areas were screened off and what appeared to be bodies covered in blankets were visible through the gaps.
The truck was still where it came to rest, its windscreen riddled with bullets.
Bystander Franck Sidoli said he had seen people go down. "Then the truck stopped, we were just five metres away. A woman was there, she lost her son. Her son was on the ground, bleeding," he told Reuters at the scene.
Vehicle attacks have been used by isolated members of militant groups in recent years, notably in Israel, though never to such devastating effect.
On social media, Islamic State supporters celebrated the high death toll. In 2014 an Islamic State spokesman released an audio recording encouraging "lone wolf" attacks, calling on supporters to kill "any infidel, French, American, or any of their allies".
Officials have warned of the continuing risk of Islamist attacks in the region. Reverses for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have raised fears it might strike again, again using alienated young men from the continent's Arab immigrant communities whom it has inspired to take up arms against their home countries.
Nice, a city of 350,000, has a history as a flamboyant, aristocratic resort but is also a gritty metropolis. It has seen dozens of its Muslim residents travel to Syria to fight, a path taken by previous Islamic State attackers in Europe.
At Nice's Pasteur hospital, medical staff was treating large numbers of injuries. Waiting for friends who were being operated on, 20-year-old Fanny told Reuters she had been lucky.
"We were all very happy, ready to celebrate all night long," she said. "I saw a truck driving into the pedestrian area, going very fast and zig-zagging.
"The truck pushed me to the side. When I opened my eyes I saw faces I didn't know and started asking for help ... Some of my friends were not so lucky. They are having operations as we speak. It's very hard, it's all very traumatic."