Monday 26 September 2016

'Isis soldiers' filmed blade attack on priest in French church - witness

*Two attackers hold hostages at church in northern France
*Priest killed with blade and another hostage seriously wounded
*Pope Francis horrified by news of 'barbaric killing'
*Taoiseach describes attack as 'brutal'

Marine Pennetier and Chine Labbé

Published 26/07/2016 | 09:56

Police officers speak to a driver as they close off a road during a hostage situation in Normandy, France (BFM via AP)
Police officers speak to a driver as they close off a road during a hostage situation in Normandy, France (BFM via AP)
Police officers close off a road during a hostage situation in Normandy, France (BFM via AP)
The bell tower of the church is seen after a hostage-taking in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in Normandy, France, July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol
The bell tower of the church is seen after a hostage-taking in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in Normandy, France, July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

A witness has described a horrific attack in which two men killed a priest with a blade and seriously wounded another hostage in a French church.

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The attack took place during morning mass at the Saint-Etienne parish church, south of Rouen in Normandy. Five people were initially taken hostage.

The deceased priest has been named as Father Jacques Hamel and has been described as an "extraordinary priest and a great man".

Sister Danielle told BFMTV the two men filmed the attack and asked Father Hamel to kneel down before their assault.

An undated photo shows French priest, Father Jacques Hamel of the parish of Saint-Etienne. Photo Courtesy of Parish of Saint-Etienne via Reuters
An undated photo shows French priest, Father Jacques Hamel of the parish of Saint-Etienne. Photo Courtesy of Parish of Saint-Etienne via Reuters

A police source said it appeared that the priest had had his throat slit.

The nun described how the two men "filmed themselves preaching in Arabic" from the altar after the attack.

“They didn’t see me leave,” she told the French channel BFMTV. “They were busy with their knives. They were filming themselves preaching in Arabic in front of the altar. It was a horror. Jacques was an extraordinary priest. He was a great man, Father Jacques.”

There were no immediate details on the identity or motives of the two assailants but the investigation was handed to the anti-terrorist unit of the Paris prosecutor's office. A few hours after the attack, the so-called 'Islamic State' claimed two of its 'soldiers' were involved.

The bell tower of the church is seen after a hostage-taking in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in Normandy, France, July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol
The bell tower of the church is seen after a hostage-taking in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in Normandy, France, July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

The attack is the latest in a string of deadly assaults in Europe, including the mass killing in Nice on Bastille Day and four incidents in Germany. Many of the attacks have had links to Islamist militants.

The Archbishop of Rouen identified the slain priest as Father Jacques Hamel. The Vatican condemned what it said was a "barbarous killing".

Police and rescue workers stand at the scene after two assailants had taken five people hostage in the church at Saint-Etienne-du -Rouvray near Rouen in Normandy, France REUTERS/Steve Bonet
Police and rescue workers stand at the scene after two assailants had taken five people hostage in the church at Saint-Etienne-du -Rouvray near Rouen in Normandy, France REUTERS/Steve Bonet

French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told France Info radio that the perpetrators have been killed by France's BRI, its elite police anti-crime force, when they came out of the church.

He said that bomb squad officers aided by sniffer dogs had been scouring the church for any possible explosives.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls branded the attack "barbaric" and said it was a blow to all Catholics and the whole of France.

"We will stand together," Valls said on Twitter.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has also condemned the attack and described it as "brutal".

He said: "For centuries the church has always been a place of sanctuary and it’s particularly brutal that terror and murder have been visited on people at time when they’ve been so physically vulnerable and so spiritually hopeful."

The attack will heap yet more pressure on President Francois Hollande to regain control of national security, with France already under a state of emergency 10 months ahead of a presidential election.

The Normandy attack came 12 days after a 31-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed his heavy goods truck into a crowd of revellers in the French Riviera city of Nice, killing 84 people. Islamic State claimed that attack.

"Horror. Everything is being done to trigger a war of religions," tweeted Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former conservative prime minister who now heads the Senate's foreign affairs committee.

Hollande and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve arrived at the scene of the attack where they met with members of the emergency services.

Cazeneuve has come under fire from Conservative politicians for not doing enough to prevent the Bastille Day Nice attack.

French lawmakers approved a six-month extension of emergency rule after the July 14 attack while the Socialist government also said it would step up strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Reuters

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