The investigation into a gruesome attack by a Tunisian man who killed three people in a French church had a second suspect in custody Friday, as France heightened its security alert amid religious and geopolitical tensions around cartoons mocking the Muslim prophet.
Muslims held more anti-France protests across the Mideast and beyond on Friday, while mourners placed flowers, messages and candles at the entrance to the Notre Dame Basilica in the French Riviera city of Nice, where Thursday's knife attack took place.
The attacker, Ibrahim Issaoui, was seriously wounded by police and hospitalized in life-threatening condition, authorities said. Anti-terrorism prosecutors in France and Tunisia are investigating.
U.S. & World
The new suspect is a 47-year-old man believed to have been in contact with the attacker the night before the attack, according to a judicial official. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.
The victims included 55-year-old Vincent Loques, a father of two who was the church's sacristan, in charge of its holy objects, according to local broadcaster France-Bleu. Another was a 44-year-old mother of three from Brazil named Simone who had studied cooking in Nice and helped poor communities, France-Bleu reported.
In an interview broadcast Friday with Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV, the attacker's mother said she was shocked by the events.
From the Tunisian province of Sfax, the mother, her eyes wet with tears, said she was surprised to hear her son was in France when he called upon his arrival and had no idea what he was planning. “You don’t know the French language, you don’t know anyone there, you’re going to live alone there, why, why did you go there?” she said she told him over the phone at the time.
His brother told Al-Arabiya that Issaoui had informed the family he would sleep in front of the church, and sent them a photograph showing him at the cathedral where the attack took place. “He didn’t tell me anything,” he said. A neighbor said he knew the assailant when he was a mechanic and held various other odd jobs, and had shown no signs of radicalization.
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said the suspect is a Tunisian born in 1999 who reached the Italian island of Lampedusa, a key landing point for migrants crossing in boats from North Africa, on Sept. 20 and traveled to Bari, a port city in southern Italy, on Oct. 9. It is not clear when he arrived in Nice.
Tunisians fleeing a virus-battered economy make up the largest contingent of migrants landing in Italy this year. Italian media reported that from Lampedusa, where Issaoui was one of 1,300 arriving migrants on Sept. 20, he was placed with 800 others on a virus quarantine boat in Puglia.
After the two-week quarantine, he received a notice that he was being expelled from Italy for illegal entry and was given seven days to leave the country, according to Milan daily Corriere della Sera.
Italy’s interior minister confirmed Friday that the suspect was ordered to leave Italy on Oct. 9. Minister Luciana Lamorgese did not give further details on what, if any action, was taken to ensure the man complied with the order, but she said he was not flagged by either Tunisian authorities nor by intelligence agencies.
Lamorgese called Thursday’s attack in France ‘’an attack on Europe. Let’s not forget that Lampedusa, Italy is the gateway to Europe.’’
In response to the attack, President Emmanuel Macron said he would immediately increase the number of soldiers deployed to protect schools and religious sites from around 3,000 to 7,000.
The attack was the third in less than two months that French authorities have attributed to Muslim extremists, including the beheading of a teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class after the images were re-published by satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
Following the beheading, Macron vowed to protect the right to caricature the Prophet Mohammad, stirring the ire of Muslims across the world who consider depictions of the prophet blasphemous and leading to several anti-France protests in Muslim-majority nations.
In Pakistan, an estimated 2,000 worshippers celebrating the Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, took to the streets in the eastern city of Lahore on Friday. Crowds led by Islamic parties chanted anti-France slogans, raised banners and clogged major roads en route to a Sufi shrine. Dozens of people furiously stomped on French flags and cried for the boycott of French products. In Multan, a city in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province, thousands burned an effigy of the French president and demanded that Pakistan sever ties with France.
More gatherings were planned for later Friday in Pakistan, including the capital, Islamabad, where police were out in force to prevent possible demonstrations outside the French Embassy. The atmosphere was tense as police positioned shipping containers to block the roads.
Other protests, largely organized by Islamists, are expected across the region, including in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
In Afghanistan, members of the Islamist party Hezb-i-Islami set the French flag ablaze. Its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, warned Macron that if he doesn't “control the situation, we are going to a third world war and Europe will be responsible.”
Charlton reported from Paris.