Nice killer had accomplices and planned for year, says prosecutor

Five to be arraigned in connection with complicity in a terrorist undertaking

Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Tunisian driver who killed 84 people by driving a lorry down the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on July 14th, "benefited from support and complicity in the preparation and execution of his criminal act," Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said on Thursday.

He said five people, a Tunisian, two Franco-Tunisians and an Albanian couple who sold a pistol, are to be charged with complicity in a terrorist undertaking, said Mr Molins.

The 400 police investigators working under his orders have found no evidence of links with other jihadist groups such as Islamic State.

Evidence from Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s telephone and computer indicate he planned the attack for at least a year. He photographed an article dated May 25th, 2015, about the amphetamine captagon, “known as the magic potion of fighters and used by some jihadists responsible for terrorist acts,” said Mr Molins.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel zoomed on the crowd in photographs of Bastille Day and other festivities in Nice in July and August 2015.

The killer had 1,278 telephone contacts with Mohamed Walid G, an alleged conspirator, over the past year. Mohamed Walid G went to the scene after the attack and filmed journalists and rescue services, as well as himself, said Mr Molins.

Investigators found photographs of Mohamed Walid G with Lahouaiej-Bouhlel in the cab of the lorry on July 11th and 13th. Choucri C, another suspect, was photographed in the cab with the killer three hours before the attack.

The testimony of Ramzi A, also accused of complicity, led investigators to a Kalashnikov assault rifle hidden in a Nice cellar. Its intended use is unknown.

Mr Molins spoke as the controversy over security arrangments in Nice on the night of July 14th grew politically explosive.

The prosecutor’s office confirmed to Le Figaro that the government ordered agents in charge of video surveillance in Nice to “completely” erase 24 hours of images from six cameras, including all images of the beginning of the attack.

Earlier on Thursday, Libération newspaper reported under the front page banner headline “Nice;  Lapses and a Lie” that, contrary to government statements, there were no national police at the entry to the pedestrian zone where 30,000 people gathered to watch the fireworks.

‘Travesty’

Two municipal policemen wearing fluorescent yellow vests patrolled a line of moveable metal barriers, as shown by photographs taken shortly before the attack.

In a communique published at 1am, interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve questioned "the ethics of the journalists" and criticised "an approach touching on conspiracy theories and leading people to believe that the prefect, interior minister and prime minister attempt to travesty the truth".

Mr Cazeneuve asked the police inspector general to investigate the exact details of security arrangements on the night of the attack.

Local officials and the central government in Paris have blamed each other for the weak security since the immediate aftermath of the massacre. "I would like to understand how this lorry was able to enter a pedestrian zone," said Christian Estrosi, conservative president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region and deputy mayor of Nice.

The government noted that security arrangements were agreed between local and national officials. If Mr Estrosi was not satisfied, why did he not cancel the fireworks? it asked.

At the first of three joint meetings it was decided that local police would search everyone entering the pedestrian zone. That plan was subsequently abandoned because of limited resources.

Two days after the attack the prefect claimed that “sensitive points of the perimetre (of the pedestrian area) were entrusted to teams from the national police, reinforced by teams from the municipal police . . . This was the case at the point of entry of the lorry.”

National police were in fact positioned 400m farther on, in the midst of the pedestrian zone.

Mr Cazeneuve said the national police were “very present” and that their vehicles blocked the entry to the seafront boulevard.  Two police cars were parked 370m inside the zone and were insufficient to block the throughfare.

French law bans the use of all lorries heavier than 7½ tonnes on weekends and holidays. The city of Nice forbids lorries weighing more than 3½ tonnes on the promenade at all times.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times

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