, Paris, France, Jul 28 – France on Thursday identified the second jihadist involved in the brutal killing of an elderly priest, as calls mounted for the prime minister and interior minister to resign after the latest terror attack.
Prosecutors named the assailant as 19-year-old Abdel Malik Petitjean, who was listed in June on France’s “Fiche S” system of people posing a potential threat to national security after he tried to reach Syria from Turkey.
- The two men stormed into a church in the northern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray during morning mass Tuesday and slit the 86-year-old priest's throat at the altar before being gunned down by police.
- Another man was left seriously injured in a hostage drama, while three nuns and a worshipper escaped unharmed.
Petitjean, whose face was disfigured when he was shot dead by police, had been harder to identify than his accomplice Adel Kermiche, also 19. Investigators confirmed Petitjean’s identity after a DNA match with his mother.
The two jihadists pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in a video made before they stormed a church in the Normandy town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray on Tuesday and slit the throat of 86-year-old priest Jacques Hamel at the altar.
Hamel’s funeral will be held in the stunning Gothic cathedral of nearby Rouen next Tuesday, the city’s Catholic diocese said.
The attack came as the government was already facing a firestorm of criticism over alleged security failings after the Bastille Day truck massacre in Nice that left 84 people dead two weeks ago.
– ‘Government guilty’ –
A brief show of political unity at a mass attended by different faiths in Paris on Wednesday quickly dissolved as Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve faced fresh calls to resign.
“Even if the government is not responsible for the wave of terrorism, it is guilty of not having done everything to stop it,” Laurent Wauqiez, the deputy leader of the right-wing Republicans party, said in an interview with Le Figaro newspaper.
“Manuel Valls and Bernard Cazeneuve must go because they refuse to take vital measures to fight Islamism. We need a new government, determined to act.”
Meanwhile, President Francois Hollande responded to remarks by US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that “France is no longer France” as a result of the attacks.
“France will always be France, because France will never yield and because France is always the bearer of ideals, values and principles, for which we are recognised throughout the world,” Hollande said.
“When you lower your standards, you are no longer what you are. That’s something that may happen to others, on the other side of the Atlantic,” Hollande added in an allusion to Trump.
The French government has said that everything possible is being done to protect citizens, while warning that more terror attacks are inevitable, after three major strikes and several smaller attacks in the past 18 months.
Hollande on Thursday confirmed plans to create a National Guard drawn from existing reserves, after the government previously urged “patriots” to sign up to become reservists.
The president said he hopes the guard, made up of volunteers from the police, paramilitary police and military, will be operational by early autumn.
– Warnings of terror strike –
The government has faced tough questions since it emerged that both church attackers had been on the radar of intelligence services and had tried to go to Syria.
Sparking particular ire was the revelation that Kermiche had been released from prison while awaiting trial on terror charges after his second attempt to travel to Syria.
He was fitted with an electronic tag — allowing him out of the house on weekday mornings — despite calls from the prosecutor for him not to be released.
Annie Geslin, who worked with Kermiche’s mother for many years, told AFP “he was the youngest child and had psychological problems”.
Sources close to the investigation said Petitjean “strongly resembles” a man hunted by anti-terrorism police in the days before the church killing over fears he was about to carry out an act of terror.
The sources said France’s anti-terrorism police unit UCLAT sent out a note four days before the attack — saying it had received “reliable” information about a person “about to carry out an attack on national territory”.
Three members of Petitjean’s family were taken into custody for questioning, a source close to the investigation said.
A 20-year-old Frenchman on the security watchlist is also in custody after being arrested Wednesday, the source told AFP.
He had been turned away by Turkey and handed over to Switzerland, the source said, adding however that “nothing proves” he was aware of the planned church murder.
In a video posted by IS-linked news agency Amaq, the two men calling themselves by the noms de guerre Abu Omar and Abu Jalil al-Hanafi hold hands as they swear “obedience” to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Petitjean, from France’s eastern Savoie region, had several part-time sales jobs and was described by his incredulous mother as “gentle”, insisting he “was not involved at all”.
Others who knew him were equally shocked, describing him as normal and showing no signs of radicalisation.
“All the believers are shocked because he was known for his kindness. What was going on in his head?” asked Djamel Tazghat, who manages the local mosque.
The attack is the third in two weeks in France and Germany in which jihadists have pledged allegiance to IS, increasing jitters in Europe over young, often unstable men being lured by the group’s propaganda and calls to carry out attacks in their home countries.