A “terrorist” gunman killed 80 people and wounded scores when he drove a heavy truck at high speed into a crowd watching Bastille Day fireworks in the French Riviera city of Nice late on Thursday, officials said.
In a pre-dawn address to the nation, President Francois Hollande called up military and police reservists to relieve forces worn out by an eight-month state of emergency begun after the Islamic State militant group killed 130 people in Paris. The state of emergency has been extended.
“France is filled with sadness by this new tragedy,” Hollande said, noting several children were among the dead in what he said he had no doubt was an act of terrorism.
He called the carnage, which came as France celebrated the anniversary of the 1789 revolutionary storming of the Bastille, an attack on liberty by fanatics who despised human rights.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said 80 people died and 18 were in a critical condition, with many more also wounded.
Counter-terrorist investigators were seeking to identify the driver, who a local government official said opened fire before police shot him dead. The official said weapons and grenades were found inside the 25-tonne, unmarked articulated truck.
Officials said hundreds were hurt as the driver wove along the seafront, knocking them down “like skittles”.
The attack, which came eight months and a day after Islamic State gunmen and suicide bombers struck the French capital on a festive Friday evening, seemed so far to be the work of a lone assailant. Newspaper Nice-Matin quoted unidentified sources as saying the driver was a 31-year-old local of Tunisian origin.
“A SCENE OF HORROR”
The truck careered for hundreds of meters along the famed Promenade des Anglais seafront, slamming into spectators watching the fireworks, listening to an orchestra or strolling above the beach toward the grand, century-old Hotel Negresco.
“It’s a scene of horror,” member of parliament Eric Ciotti told France Info radio, saying the truck “mowed down several hundred people.” Jacques, who runs Le Queenie restaurant on the seafront, told the station: “People went down like ninepins.”
Bystander Franck Sidoli, who was visibly shocked, said: “I saw people go down.”
“Then the truck stopped, we were just five meters away. A woman was there, she lost her son. Her son was on the ground, bleeding,” he told Reuters at the scene.
Nice-Matin posted photographs of the truck, its windshield starred by a score of bullets and its radiator grille destroyed.
Major events in France have been guarded by troops and armed police since the Islamic State attacks last year, but it appeared to have taken many minutes to halt the progress of the truck as it tore along pavements and a pedestrian zone.
Police told residents of the city, 30 km (20 miles) from the Italian border, to stay indoors as they conducted further operations, although there was no sign of any other attack.
Hours earlier, Hollande, who raced back to Paris from the south of France after the attack, had said the state of emergency would end in two weeks. He has now extended it by three months, calling up former troops and gendarmes.
Islamic State militants killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13, the bloodiest in a number of attacks in France and Belgium in the past two years. On Sunday, a weary nation had breathed a collective sigh of relief as the month-long Euro 2016 soccer tournament across France ended without a feared attack.
Four months ago, Belgian Islamists linked to the Paris attackers killed 32 people in Brussels.
Vehicle attacks have been used by isolated members of militant groups in recent years, notably in Israel, as well as in Europe, though never to such devastating effect.
U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement: “On behalf of the American people, I condemn in the strongest terms what appears to be a horrific terrorist attack in Nice, France, which killed and wounded dozens of innocent civilians.”
The United Nations Security Council said it “condemned in the strongest terms the barbaric and cowardly terrorist attack”.
HIDING IN TERROR
One woman told France Info that she and others had fled in terror: “The lorry came zig-zagging along the street. We ran into a hotel and hid in the toilets with lots of people.”
Journalist Damien Allemand had been watching the traditional seaside firework display when the truck tore by just as it ended. After taking cover in a cafe, he came back out on the promenade: “Bodies every five meters, limbs,” he wrote on the Nice-Matin website. “Blood. Groans.”
“The beach attendants were first on the scene. They brought water for the injured and towels, which they placed on those for whom there was no more hope.”
Officials have warned in the past of the risk of Islamist attacks in the region following the Paris and Brussels attacks.
Nice, a city of some 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.
“Neither the place nor the date are coincidental,” a former French intelligence agent and security consultant, Claude Moniquet, told France-Info, noting the jihadist presence in Nice and the fact that July 14 marks France’s revolution.
“Tragic paradox that the subject of Nice attack was the people celebrating liberty, equality and fraternity,” European Council President Donald Tusk said on Twitter.
(Additional reporting by Michel Rose, Bate Felix, Brian Love and Andrew Callus in PARIS; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Sandra Maler, Leslie Adler and Paul Tait)