A man armed with a knife stabbed six people, including four preschool children, by a lake in the French Alps on Thursday in an attack that sent shock waves through the country. The suspect, who was arrested, did not have a terrorist motive, according to the local prosecutor.
A suspect, identified by police as a 31-year-old Syrian asylum-seeker, was detained.
Video appearing to show the attack in a children’s play park in the Alpine and lakeside town of Annecy, 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of the Swiss city of Geneva, was posted on social media. The horrific scenes showed a man in dark glasses and with a blue scarf covering his head brandishing a knife, as people screamed for help.
Witnesses described the knifeman running around a public park on the banks of Lake Annecy in a frenzy, apparently attacking people at random, before he was shot by police.
“He wanted to attack everyone. I moved away and he lunged at an old man and woman and stabbed the old man,” former professional footballer Anthony Le Tallec, who was running in the park, told the local Dauphiné Libéré newspaper.
Two children and one adult were in life-threatening condition, while two children were less seriously hurt, police said. The wounded children were aged between 22 months and three years, they said.
One of the wounded children was a British national, said British Foreign Minister James Cleverly, speaking at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) news conference in Paris.
“We have already deployed British consular officials to…support the family,” said Cleverly. “Our thoughts are with the victims and the families and we stand ready to support the French authorities in whichever way we can.”
Another wounded child was a German national, said AFP citing a security source.
Annecy is a scenic town in the French Alps close to the border with Switzerland popular with tourists and home to one of the world’s top animation festivals, which starts Sunday.
French President Emmanuel Macron called it an “attack of absolute cowardice”.
Attaque d’une lâcheté absolue ce matin dans un parc à Annecy. Des enfants et un adulte sont entre la vie et la mort. La Nation est sous le choc. Nos pensées les accompagnent ainsi que leurs familles et les secours mobilisés.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) June 8, 2023
“The nation is shocked. Our thoughts are with (the victims) as well as their families and the emergency services,” he wrote on Twitter.
Minute of silence
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne‘s office announced she was travelling to the scene and MPs in the French parliament held a minute’s silence.
“We hope that the consequences of this extremely serious attack… will not send the country into mourning,” parliament speaker Yael Braun-Pivet told MPs as she interrupted a raucous debate about pension reform.
The motive and identity of the attacker are being investigated and the local prosecutor is expected to give further details at a press conference.
BFM television reported that the suspect identified himself as a Christian from Syria.
The man appeared to shout “in the name of Jesus Christ” as he waved his knife in the air, according to witnesses, while people around could be screaming: “Police! Police!”
He slashed at a man carrying rucksacks who tried to approach him, seemingly trying to stop the attack. Inside the enclosed play park itself, a panicked woman frantically pushed a stroller as the attacker approached, yelling “Help! Help!” and ramming the stroller into the park’s barriers in her terror.
France has experienced several violent attacks over the past decade.
In 2012, a Franco-Algerian extremist called Mohamed Merah killed seven people during a shooting rampage in the southern city of Toulouse, with the murders of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school sparking widespread outrage.
Most recently, the beheading of a teacher in broad daylight in 2020 near his school in a Paris suburb by a radicalised Chechen refugee led to shock and grief, as well as a national debate about the influence of radical Islam in deprived areas of the country.
Thursday’s attack is likely to spur greater scrutiny of immigration and asylum policy, with right-wing politicians immediately seizing on the suspected culprit’s identity as a refugee.
“The investigation will determine what happened, but it seems like the culprit has the same profile that you see often in these attacks,” the head of the right-wing Republicans party, Eric Ciotti, told reporters at parliament.
“We need to draw conclusions without being naive, with strength and with a clear mind.”
The leader of the far-right National Rally party, Marine Le Pen, wrote that she had learned the news with “dread and horror”.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)
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