Nice attack: France in mourning after 84 killed

Irish man among 200 injured, 50 of whom are critical, after lorry ran into crowd

At least 84 people were killed and more than 200 injured after an armed man drove a heavy truck at high speed into a crowd in the southern French sea resort of Nice, a spokesman for the French interior ministry said.

An Irish man, believed to be from the west of the country, was seriously injured at the event. There had been concern around eight other Irish people but they were contacted and are said to be safe.

The truck driver was identified by police sources as Tunisian-born Frenchman Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel (31).

He was not on the watch list of French intelligence services but was known to the police in connection with common crimes such as theft and violence, the sources said.

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Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s ex-wife is in custody and they are trying to determine whether he “had ties to Islamist terrorist organisations”.

“Although yesterday’s attack has not been claimed, this sort of thing fits in perfectly with calls for murder from such terrorist organisations.”

French prime minister Manuel Valls said the man behind the attack in Nice in all likelihood had ties to radical Islamist circles.

"He is a terrorist probably linked to radical Islam one way or another," Mr Valls told France 2 television's evening news programme. "Yes, it is a terrorist act and we shall see what the links there are with terrorist organisations."

Mr Valls said he was “convinced” that France would win the war against terrorism and radical Islam.

The French prosecutor said “202 people were injured including 52 in critical care. Among these 52 people 25 are still in intensive care.”

He says the numbers are preliminary and they could increase.

French president Francois Hollande said earlier after visiting victims: "About 50 people are in an absolute urgency between life and death."

He added that there were a lot of foreigners and children among the dead and warned that the fight against extremist groups would be long because they would continue to try to strike at Western values.

“All of France is under the threat of Islamic terrorists,” Mr Hollande said.

Mourning

France has declared three days of national mourning following the attack, which took place along the famed seafront Promenade des Anglais as fireworks marking Bastille Day ended just after 10.30pm (8.30pm GMT).

The driver careered into the dense crowd and continued to drive into them for a distance of 2km.

The French interior ministry confirmed that the driver had been shot dead by police, who are investigating whether he acted alone or had accomplices.

A police source told Le Monde that the driver was armed. Christian Estrosi, head of the local region, said there were explosives in the truck.

There are reports the driver opened fire before police shot him dead.

French paper Nice-Matin reports 54 children were admitted to the Lenval hospital on Thursday night, while there are also reports of 10 children being killed.

Mr Hollande, rushed back to the Paris government crisis centre from a visit to Avignon. Earlier he had given his traditional Bastille Day address saying that France’s state of emergency would end on July 26th. It was put in place after the November Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

No claim of responsibility for the Nice attack was made.

Following the Nice attack, he said the state of emergency was extended by three months.

He said France would, nonetheless, continue military operations in Syria and Iraq.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan released a statement on Thursday night, saying: “This attack on people as they celebrated Bastille Day with friends and family on a fine summer’s evening is particularly horrendous, and my thoughts and sympathies are with the relatives of the dead and injured.

“My department is monitoring the situation closely, and our Ambassador in France Geraldine Byrne Nason and her staff are seeking to establish whether any Irish citizens have been caught up in this evening’s tragic events. Our embassy in Paris is on stand-by to offer assistance to any Irish people affected by these events and the staff of the embassy are on duty and monitoring the situation closely.

“Irish citizens in Nice who need to contact the embassy can do so at 0144176700, and are advised to exercise caution and follow instructions of local authorities. Consular staff in my department are also on hand to take calls from concerned families here in Ireland and they may be contacted at any time at 01 408 2000.”

Nice, a city of some 350,000, has a history as a flamboyant, aristocratic resort but is also a gritty metropolis. It has seen dozens of its Muslim residents travel to Syria to fight, a path taken by previous Islamic State attackers in Europe.

"Neither the place nor the date are coincidental," a former French intelligence agent and security consultant, Claude Moniquet, told France-Info, noting the jihadist presence in Nice and the fact that July 14th marks France's revolution.

"Tragic paradox that the subject of Nice attack was the people celebrating liberty, equality and fraternity," European Council President Donald Tusk said on Twitter.

‘A scene of horror’

The truck careered for 2km along the front facing the Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels), driving into families and friends listening to an orchestra or strolling above the beach toward the grand, century-old Hotel Negresco.

“It’s a scene of horror,” member of parliament Éric Ciotti told France Info radio, saying the truck “mowed down several hundred people.”

Jacques, who runs Le Queenie restaurant on the seafront, told the station: “People went down like ninepins.”

Bystander Franck Sidoli, who was visibly shocked, said: "I saw people go down."

“Then the truck stopped, we were just five meters away. A woman was there, she lost her son. Her son was on the ground, bleeding,” he told Reuters at the scene.

Nice-Matin posted photographs of the truck, its windshield starred by a score of bullets and its radiator grille destroyed.

Major events in France have been guarded by troops and armed police since the terrorist attacks last year, but it appeared to have taken many minutes to halt the progress of the truck as it tore along pavements and a pedestrian zone.

Four months ago, Belgian Islamists linked to the Paris attackers killed 32 people in Brussels.

Vehicle attacks have been used by isolated members of militant groups in recent years, notably in Israel, as well as in Europe, though never to such devastating effect.

US president Barack Obama said in a statement: "On behalf of the American people, I condemn in the strongest terms what appears to be a horrific terrorist attack in Nice, France, which killed and wounded dozens of innocent civilians."

The United Nations Security Council said it "condemned in the strongest terms the barbaric and cowardly terrorist attack".

On social media, Islamic State supporters celebrated the high death toll.

Officials have warned in the past of the risk of Islamist attacks in the region following the Paris and Brussels attacks.

At Nice’s Pasteur hospital, medical staff were treating large numbers of injuries. Waiting for friends who were being operated on, 20-year-old Fanny told Reuters she had been lucky.

“We were all very happy, ready to celebrate all night long,” she said. “I saw a truck driving into the pedestrian area, going very fast and zig-zagging.

“The truck pushed me to the side. When I opened my eyes I saw faces I didn’t know and started asking for help ... Some of my friends were not so lucky.

“They are having operations as we speak. It’s very hard, it’s all very traumatic.”

Are you in Nice today? If so, please get in touch with us by email at newsdesk@irishtimes.com or on Twitter @IrishTimes

Additional reporting: Agencies

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times