A knife-wielding man killed three people at a church in southern France Thursday, practically beheading a 60-year-old woman in what President Emmanuel Macron called an "Islamist terrorist attack."
The 21-year-old Tunisian migrant, who had a copy of the Koran 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 Picard 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 Picard. 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."
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."
The killings, which occurred ahead of the Catholic holy day of All Saints Day on Sunday, prompted the government to raise the terror alert level to the maximum "emergency" level nationwide.
Macron, who quickly travelled to Nice, announced increased surveillance of churches by France's Sentinelle military patrols, to be bolstered to 7,000 troops from 3,000. Security at schools would also be boosted, he said.
"Quite clearly, it is France that is being attacked," the president added, vowing the country "will not give up on our values".
France has been the target of widespread anger in the Islamic world after Macron vowed to take the fight to radicals after the October 16 beheading of a history teacher by an extremist for having shown pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a free speech lesson.