The Islamic State group said Tuesday that two of its “soldiers” stormed a French church and slit a priest’s throat, the latest attack in a country already shaken to its core by a series of terror strikes.
The hostage drama in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray comes less than two weeks after the truck massacre in the French Riviera city of Nice, which killed 84 people and was also claimed by IS.
French President Francois Hollande said the two men who stormed the church, before killing the elderly Catholic priest, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group before being shot dead by police.
Shortly afterwards the IS-linked Amaq news agency, citing a “security source”, said the perpetrators were “soldiers of the Islamic State who carried out the attack in response to calls to target countries of the Crusader coalition”.
Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre Henry Brandet said the two attackers had stormed the centuries-old stone St-Etienne church, situated on a calm square in the working-class town of about 30,000 people, during morning mass.
He said police from the elite BRI unit, which specialises in responding to kidnappings, surrounded the church, and that “the two assailants came out and were killed by police”.
A source close to the investigation said they shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) as they exited the church.
Three of the hostages were freed unharmed, and another person was in a critical condition, said Brandet.
The priest died after his throat was slit, sources close to the investigation told AFP.
The archbishop of the nearby city of Rouen, Dominique Lebrun, named the priest as Jacques Hamel, who is in his eighties.
– Terror hits small-town France –
Grey clouds hung over the town, near-deserted as stores shuttered for the day after the attack. Police were still sweeping the scene for explosives.
Pascal Quilan, 53, who as a funeral director worked with the church the past 30 years, said he was in his office when he heard gunfire from police shooting at the attackers.
“We never thought it could happen in a place like this, especially not a church, a servant of God killed in his own house,” he said.
Joanna Torrent, a 22-year-old store employee, was equally dumbfounded to see terror hit her small town, far from bustling tourist hubs like Paris and Nice.
“I thought this would only happen in big cities, and not here by us,” she said.
Alexandre Joly, a priest from a neighbouring parish who said he knew the victim, described him as “very gentle”.
“The Christian community is very affected. Mass is the strongest moment, so obviously it is a strong symbol.”
Pope Francis voiced his “pain and horror” at the “barbaric killing” of the priest.
– Hollande urges unity –
France remains on high alert after Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian national, ploughed a truck into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice on July 14.
While IS claimed the attack, no evidence of direct links between Bouhlel and the group have turned up.
Hollande appealed for “unity” in France, where political blame-trading has poisoned the aftermath of the truck attack, the third major strike in the country in 18 months.
“The threat remains very high,” said Hollande.
“We are confronted with a group, Daesh, which has declared war on us,” Hollande said, using an alternative name for IS.
“The Catholic community has been hit, but it is all of the French public which is concerned,” He added.
The two attackers have not yet been formally identified, however the sources close to the investigation said one of the men is believed to be known to anti-terror investigators.
They believe he went to Syria in 2015 and was charged on his return with association with a terrorist group and released from detention with an electronic monitoring bracelet.
– Political row over security –
The Nice massacre triggered a bitter political spat over alleged security failings, with the government accused of not doing enough to protect the population.
French far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen wrote on Twitter that the “modus operandi obviously makes us fear a new attack from terrorist Islamists.”
France has been a prime target of IS, which regularly calls for supporters to launch attacks against the country, a member of the international coalition carrying out air strikes against the jihadist group in Iraq and Syria.
Attacks in Belgium in March, and two in Germany in a week also claimed by IS, have further increased jitters across Europe.
After Nice, France extended a state of emergency for the fourth time since IS jihadists struck Paris in November, killing 130 people.
Valls had warned earlier this week that France will face more attacks as it struggles to handle extremists returning from jihad in Iraq and Syria and those radicalised at home by devouring propaganda on the internet.
France has been concerned about the threat against churches ever since Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a 24-year-old Algerian IT student, was arrested in Paris in April last year on suspicion of killing a woman who was found shot dead in her car.
Prosecutors say they discovered documents about Al-Qaeda and IS at his home, and that he had been in touch with a suspected jihadist in Syria about an attack on a church.