PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to protect schools and places of worship by more than doubling the number of soldiers deployed to protect against attacks, after two women and a man were killed at a church in the city of Nice on Thursday.
Speaking from the scene of the attack, Nice’s Notre Dame basilica, Macron said France had been attacked “over our values, for our taste for freedom, for the ability on our soil to have freedom of belief.”
“We will not give any ground,” he added.
Macron’s announcement to increase deployments from around 3,000 troops to 7,000 came hours after the suspected terror attack left the European country reeling.
A man armed with a knife attacked people inside the church around 9 a.m. local time, killing a woman and a man, French police confirmed to NBC News.
A third victim, another woman, ran from the church seeking refuge in a café but was hunted down and killed, police added. Several others have been wounded, and the suspect was shot by police and is being treated in hospital, the police said.
France’s prime minister Jean Castex also said Thursday the country had raised its security alert status to the highest level, in what police described as a terrorist attack in the southern coastal city.
The Nice attack comes at a time of heightened tension between France and the Muslim world over the republication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad by the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo. France has Europe’s largest Muslim population.
The caricatures are considered deeply blasphemous by Muslims and have provoked anger among them across the world. It has also renewed a vociferous debate over the depictions that Muslims consider offensive but are protected by French freedom of speech laws.
The incident comes almost two weeks after an 18-year-old Chechen refugee decapitated a French school teacher who had shown pupils the Charlie Hebdo caricatures during a civics class.
Nice is no stranger to such attacks.
The scene of the incident in central Nice was not far from the site of a 2016 attack on Bastille Day, when crowds celebrating along the city’s tree-lined “Promenade des Anglais” were attacked by a truck ploughing into them, killing dozens.
Other confrontations and attacks were reported Thursday, one in the southern French city of Avignon, which police have said was not terror related and another in the Saudi city of Jeddah, where a security guard at the French consulate was attacked with a knife, according to the French Embassy in Saudi Arabia.
The attacker was immediately apprehended by Saudi security forces and the security guard was taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, the embassy said. But it was not immediately clear if the incident was linked to the Nice attack.
French churches poignantly rang out their bells at 3 p.m. local time, to pay homage to the victims in Nice.
Police said the national anti-terrorist public prosecutor’s department had opened a formal investigation.
Images on French media and from news agencies showed the area cordoned off, as well as a heavy police presence outside the white basilica.
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi tweeted that the suspect had been arrested and that one of the victims of the attack inside the church was a caretaker, who was well-liked among parishioners. NBC News could not immediately verify this report.
The mayor also said that the attacker repeated the cry “Allahu Akbar!” as he was being medically treated at the scene after police fired shots injuring him, but did not indicate where this information came from.
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Thursday’s assault was the third attack since the start in September of a terrorism trial into the January 2015 killings at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris.
On Tuesday, France warned its citizens abroad in Muslim-majority countries to take extra security precautions as anger surged over the cartoons.
Muslims have held protests in several countries and called for a boycott of French goods in response to France’s stance on caricatures of Islam’s most revered prophet, whose birthday was also marked on Thursday.
Condemnations of the attack came from Pope Francis, Britain, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. While the French Council for the Muslim Faith also condemned the attack.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Charlene Gubash and Adela Suliman contributed.