Plowing through Bastille Day revellers, a truck smashed into a crowd in the French city of Nice, killing at least 80 people in what President Francois Hollande, on Friday, called a "terrorist" attack. The driver was shot dead after barrelling the truck two kilometres (1.3 miles) through the festive crowd on the palm-lined Promenade des Anglais, sending hundreds fleeing in terror and leaving the area strewn with bodies. Authorities said they found identity papers belonging to a 31-year-old French-Tunisian citizen in the truck, as well as "guns" and "larger weapons".
The attack was of an "undeniable terrorist nature", a sombre Hollande said in a televised national address, confirming that several children were among the dead, as families came together to celebrate France's national day. The bloodshed came on Bastille Day, a celebration of everything France holds dear, its secular republic and the values of "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity). The attacker struck after a day of military pomp and ceremony in Paris — where armed forces, tanks and fighter jets swooped down Champs-Elysées — and spectacular firework displays.
"France was struck on its national day... the symbol of freedom," said Hollande. A photograph showed the front of the truck riddled with bullet holes and badly damaged, with burst tyres. A lone doll lay abandoned on the promenade where families celebrated the holiday just hours earlier.
Robert Holloway, an AFP reporter who witnessed the white truck driving at full speed into the crowd, described scenes of "absolute chaos". "We saw people hit and bits of debris flying around. I had to protect my face from flying debris," he said. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters on the scene that the death toll stood at 80 with scores injured, including 18 in "critical condition".
On Twitter, people mobilised fast, with citizens offering safe refuge under the hashtag #PortesOuvertesNice (Nice Open Doors). An account called SOS Nice was set up where desperate pleas for news of missing loved ones went out with pictures of a young girl with braces or a teenager pulling a funny face among those posted. Some were quickly tracked down, according to relieved tweets.
'Horrific terrorist attack'
The attack is the third major strike against France in less than 18 months, and prosecutors said anti-terrorist investigators would handle the probe. It comes eight months after Islamic State attacks on Paris nightspots left 130 people dead, dealing a hard blow to tourism in one of the world's top destinations.
US President Barack Obama condemned "what appears to be a horrific terrorist attack", although no group had yet claimed responsibility. Hollande announced he would extend France's state of emergency for three months in the wake of this latest attack and "step up" government action against jihadists in Syria and Iraq. "We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil," he said, in reference to the Islamic State group.
He also called up army reservists to bolster the country's security services that are stretched to the limit. France has been under a state of emergency ever since the 13 November Paris carnage, which came after 17 were killed in another attack in January at various sites including the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket. The Islamic State group has repeatedly singled out France as a prime target for its military actions against the group in Iraq and Syria, and hundreds of jihadists have left France to go and fight in its ranks.
'He crushed a lot of people'
The Mediterranean city of Nice, with its pebble beaches and clear blue water, has been a magnet for sun-seekers and the jet-setters since the 19th century. A witness named Nader told BFM television he had seen the whole attack from start to finish, and had initially thought the driver had "lost control". "I was in the street. He stopped just in front of me after he (crushed) a lot of people. I saw a guy in the street, we were trying to speak to the driver to get him to stop. "He looked nervous. There was a girl under the car, he smashed her. The guy next to me pulled her out," he said in broken English.
Nader said he saw the driver pull out a gun and start shooting at police. "They killed him and his head was out the window." The Promenade des Anglais was sealed off, crawling with police and ambulances as authorities from the local Alpes-Maritimes prefecture urged residents to stay indoors. Over the past week, France had been breathing a sigh of relief after successfully hosting the month-long Euro 2016 football championship, which passed off without incident despite fears of attacks.
The tournament brought an all-too-brief burst of joy to a gloomy France, bogged down after the two attacks in 2015, violent anti-government protests, strikes and floods. European Council President Donald Tusk said: "It's a sad day for France, for Europe, for all of us." "The subjects of the attack were people celebrating liberty, equality and fraternity."
There was a sense of déjà vu in France as the visibly-moved president took to the airwaves to address a nation once again in mourning. If confirmed as an act of terror, the incident will be the third major attack on French soil in 18 months — with several smaller-scale jihadist killings also having taken place.
While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack in the resort city, Hollande vowed to strengthen his country's role in the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. "Nothing will make us yield in our will to fight terrorism. We will further strengthen our actions in Iraq and in Syria. We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil," he said, in reference to the Islamic State group.
Hollande said several children were among the dead after the attack, which he said was of an "undeniable terrorist nature". He vowed ever stronger security measures — calling up reservists and extending a state of emergency — as he reached for familiar new words to boost the morale of a battered nation. "France is horrified by what has happened, this monstrosity which is using a truck to deliberately kill dozens of people who simply came to celebrate July 14. France was struck on its national day, a symbol of freedom," said Hollande.
France "will always be stronger, I promise you, than the fanatics that want to strike it." The country has been under a state of emergency ever since jihadists killed 130 in Paris on 13 November, and the government has boosted its security laws.
Just hours before the attack, Hollande said the state of emergency would not be renewed beyond 26 July after the adoption of a new law in May, bolstering security. However, after the incident, he said it would be extended for another three months. While security forces will remain on high alert, Hollande also called on France's "operational reservists" to boost the ranks of police and gendarmes.
These include French citizens with or without military experience as well as former soldiers.
How did the attack unfold?
The large white truck plunged into the crowd at around 11 pm (2100 GMT) on Thursday night as hundreds of people were on Nice's beachfront Promenade des Anglais to watch the fireworks for France's national day. Christian Estrosi, head of the local region, said guns and "larger weapons" were found in the truck. Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters 80 people had been killed after the truck ploughed two kilometres (1.3 miles) through the crowd, who had just finished watching the firework show.
As rumours swirled online, interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet dismissed reports that people had been taken hostage. The attacker has been shot dead, Hollande said. He is yet to be named, but the identity papers of a 31-year-old French-Tunisian were found in the truck, according to a police source. The papers indicate the man is a Nice resident.
There has been no official confirmation that the attacker shot at either the police or the public, though one witness, a man named Nader, told BFM television he saw the driver pull out a gun and start firing at police. Multiple bullet holes were visible in the truck's windscreen as police moved in after the carnage.
Was this a jihadist attack?
The attack has not been claimed by any group, but Hollande said in an address to the nation early Friday that the attack was of an "undeniable terrorist nature". Prosecutors say the probe will be handled by anti-terrorism investigators. "Investigations are currently underway to establish if the individual acted alone or if he had accomplices who might have fled," interior ministry spokesman Brandet said.
The attack comes with France under a state of emergency following the Islamic State attacks in Paris in November that left 130 people dead.
Earlier attacks in France
In December 2014, two men ploughed their vehicles into pedestrians in two days — separate incidents that left France reeling. The first driver shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) as he drove into people in the eastern city of Dijon, injuring 13.
The 40-year-old had a long history of mental illness, and no ties to jihadist groups, the government said. A day later, a man rammed a white van into a Christmas market in the western city of Nantes, killing one person and injuring nine others. He then stabbed himself several times.
Prosecutors said a notebook was found in his vehicle in which he spoke of his "hatred for society" and said he feared "being killed by secret agents". The man committed suicide in his prison cell in 2016 while awaiting trial.
How a vehicle tansformed into a deadly weapon
Transforming a vehicle into a simple but deadly weapon of terror — as happened to such bloody effect in Nice on Thursday — is a tactic well known to intelligence agencies. A truck smashed into revellers celebrating France's Bastille Day, killing at least 80 and injuring scores as its ploughed two kilometres through the crowd.
Western authorities have had to deal with three similar attacks in recent years: two in Britain and another in Canada. In May 2013, two Islamists smashed their car into British soldier Lee Rigby before attempting to behead him on a London street in broad daylight. The pair, who were of Nigerian heritage, said they attacked the 25-year-old fusilier to avenge the deaths of Muslims at the hands of British troops.
Just 18 months later, a man claiming to be acting in the name of radical jihad ran over and killed Canadian soldier Patrice Vincent, also injuring a second man. Shortly after, the 25-year-old Muslim convert, Martin Couture-Rouleau, called the police emergency line to dedicate his attack to the cause of jihad. And in June 2007, two men in a burning jeep smashed into the main terminal building at Scotland's Glasgow Airport. One of the men was jailed for life, with the judge describing him as a "religious extremist".
For several years, extremist groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have exhorted followers via videos or messages to carry out such attacks using whatever comes to hand. In September 2014, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, an IS spokesman who Western intelligence agencies have dubbed the group's "attacks minister", issued chilling instructions that some have since apparently followed.
"If you cannot (detonate) a bomb or (fire) a bullet, arrange to meet alone with a French or an American infidel and bash his skull in with a rock, slaughter him with a knife, run him over with your car, throw him off a cliff, strangle him, or inject him with poison," he said. Al-Adnani said there was no need to "consult anyone" as all unbelievers are fair game: "It is immaterial if the infidel is a combatant or a civilian... They are both enemies. The blood of both is permitted."
First Published On : Jul 15, 2016 16:38 IST