The suspect was a Tunisian man born in 1999 who had arrived in Europe on Sept. 20 in Lampedusa, the Italian island off Tunisia that is the main landing point for migrants from Africa, France’s chief anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard said on Thursday evening.
The suspect had entered Nice by train early on Thursday morning and made his way to the church, where he committed the killings, the prosecutor said.
Ricard detailed the gruesome scene inside the church where two of the victims died. A 60-year-old woman suffered “a very deep throat slitting, like a decapitation,” he said, and a 55-year-old man also suffered deep, fatal throat cuts. The third victim, a 44-year-old woman, managed to flee to a nearby cafe where she raised the alarm before dying.
Police then arrived and confronted the attacker, still shouting “Allahu Akbar,” and shot and wounded him. He is now in hospital in critical condition, authorities said.
“On the attacker we found a Koran and two telephones, the knife of the crime—30cm (about 12 inches) with a cutting edge of 17cm (about 6.5 inches). We also found a bag left by the attacker. Next to this bag were two knives that were not used in the attack,” Ricard said.
Investigators detained a second suspect, a 47-year-old man believed to have been in contact with the assailant the night before, said a judicial official on Friday.
“We are in a war against an enemy that is both inside and outside,” French Interior Minister Gerald Damarnin said on Friday. “We need to understand that there have been and there will be other events such as these terrible attacks.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday he would deploy thousands more soldiers to protect important 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.”
The Nice attack was not the only suspected terror incident targeting France on Thursday. In Montfavet, near the southern French city of Avignon, police killed a man who had threatened passersby with a handgun. He was also shouting “Allahu Akbar,” according to radio station Europe 1.
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.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex has raised France’s security alert to its highest level and said the government’s response would be firm and implacable.
The motive of the attacker was not immediately clear, but France was already on heightened security alert as Muslims in multiple Islamic countries expressed anger over the display and publication in France of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad.
The caricatures of Muhammad have been widely displayed at marches in solidarity with a French history teacher, who was murdered by an 18-year-old Islamic terrorist on Oct. 16.
Samuel Paty was beheaded in broad daylight outside his school in a middle-class Paris suburb by a teenage Chechen refugee, who had sought to avenge his victim’s use of the caricatures in a class on freedom of expression. Police shot the attacker dead.
President Macron has vigorously defended the cartoons as protected under the right to free speech, angering many Muslims and triggering protests in multiple Muslim countries.
Islamic terrorist groups ranging from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Hezbollah in Lebanon have condemned Macron’s defense of the Muhammad cartoons.
Earlier this week, France’s national police called for increased security at religious sites around the All Saint’s holiday this coming weekend.
On Tuesday, the areas around the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower in central Paris were briefly evacuated after a bag filled with ammunition was discovered.
The terrorist threat remains “very high,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Tuesday, “because we have a lot of enemies from within and outside the country.”
The French Foreign Ministry issued safety advice on Tuesday to French citizens currently in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Iraq, and Mauritania, urging them to exercise caution, stay away from protests, and avoid public gatherings.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.