The 21-year-old Tunisian migrant, who had a copy of the Quran and three knives with him, shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) when approached by police who shot and seriously wounded him, France’s anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard told a press conference.
In a near half-hour frenzy in the Notre-Dame basilica in the centre of Nice, the assailant used a knife of 30 centimetres (12 inches) to cut the throat of a 60-year-old woman so deep that he practically beheaded her, said Ricard. She died inside the church.
The body of a man, a 55-year-old church employee, was found nearby inside the basilica, his throat also slit.
Another woman, a 44-year-old who had fled the church to a nearby restaurant, died shortly afterwards from multiple knife wounds.
The victims were “people targeted for the sole reason that they were present in this church at that moment,” said Ricard.
The attack, he added, was a reminder that “the deadly ideology of Islamist terrorism is very much alive”.
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi told journalists at the scene the attacker “kept repeating ‘Allahu Akbar’ even while under medication” as he was taken to hospital.
Police prevented ‘higher toll’
Ricard said the attacker was a Tunisian, born in 1999, who had arrived in Italy on September 20, and then in France on October 9.
In a bag he had left at the scene, investigators found two unused knives, and the prosecutor said police who shot him had “without any doubt prevented an even higher toll.”