France attack: Church sexton had throat slit while preparing for Mass

Caroline Pailliez and Matthias Galante
·5 min read
Reported knife attack in French city of Nice
Reported knife attack in French city of Nice

By Caroline Pailliez and Matthias Galante

PARIS/NICE (Reuters) - As he did every day, Vincent Loques, sexton of the Notre Dame church in the French city of Nice opened up the doors around 8:30 a.m. There were few people around; the first Mass of the day was not due to start for another two hours.

But soon after he started work on Thursday morning, a Tunisian man armed with a knife entered the church and, over the course of 20 minutes, slit the 55-year-old sexton's throat, beheaded a 60-year-old woman, and badly wounded a third woman who was 44, according to prosecutors.

The sexton and the older woman died on the spot, while the younger woman managed to make it to a cafe across the street, where she died from her wounds, France's chief anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard said later on Thursday.

The attacker was shot by police officers who detained him, and is being treated in hospital.

Testimony from witnesses, mobile phone footage, and accounts from officials offered an initial picture of the events leading up to the attack, the attack itself inside the neo-Gothic church, and the immediate aftermath.

The suspected attacker, named by French and Tunisian law enforcement sources as Brahim Aouissaoui, 21, was captured on CCTV arriving at Nice railway station at 6:47 a.m. (05:47 GMT).

According to a timeline provided by Ricard, the attacker stayed in the station for 26 minutes, during which he turned his coat inside out, and changed his shoes.

At 08:13, he set off to walk the 400 metres to the Notre Dame church, in a tree-lined square just off Nice's main shopping thoroughfare.

He entered the church at 8:26 a.m., said Ricard, citing evidence from video surveillance, and began his attack, using a 30 centimetre long knife.

When police later examined the scene, they found the attacker had brought two spare knives which he did not use, along with a copy of the Koran, and two telephones.

ALARM RAISED

The first anyone outside the church knew of the attack was at 8:54 a.m. when the 44-year-old woman fled from a side entrance of the church into Rue d'Italie, a street lined with cafes and shops. She made it as far as one of the cafes, and the alarm was raised.

At a nearby bakery also next to the church, someone ran in and asked staff to call the police.

"I thought it was a joke, I didn't believe it," said one of the staff in the bakery, who spoke to French broadcaster BFMTV and gave his name as David.

But when the person insisted, David said he walked the short distance to the corner of Rue d'Italie and Avenue Jean Medecin, where last year local authorities installed an intercom in front of the church that connects directly to the municipal police.

David said he pressed the button on the intercom and summoned the police. The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, who had attended last year's unveiling of the intercom, said this was how police were first alerted to the attack.

David said the police arrived on the scene within 30 seconds, while he went back inside his bakery and pulled down the blinds.

SHOUTS OF ALLAHU AKBAR

The first police on the scene were four officers from the Nice municipal force. They entered the church through the entrance on Rue d'Italie, and saw the attacker.

"From the accounts of the police, the man advanced towards them in a threatening manner, shouting 'Allahu Akbar'," said Ricard. The term is Arabic for God is Greatest. The officers fired Tasers, then used service side-arms. Fourteen spent bullet cases were found at the scene.

In video footage obtained by Reuters, shot from a balcony across the street from the church, police officers with guns and Tasers raised could be seen in the side entrance of the church, looking inside. Gunshots could be heard. It was not clear from the footage what they were shooting at.

Footage from the same balcony vantage point later showed a man with dark hair on an ambulance gurney being wheeled away from the church and into a waiting ambulance. Police with guns surrounded the man on the stretcher, who was motionless.

A witness who observed the scene said the man on the gurney was the knife attacker, but Reuters was unable to independently verify that.

Earlier, witnesses said they heard gunfire coming from the street outside the church, and said they believed police were shooting at someone running away from the church, but this was not borne out by the prosecutor's account.

Outside the church, parishioners sought news about the victims.

Michele Malé, one of the parishioners, broke down in tears. "We just found out on TV that our sexton was assassinated," she told reporters. "We're in shock."

A local member of parliament named the sexton as Vincent Loques. The names of the other victims have not been released.

The sexton -- a lay member of staff responsible for the upkeep of the church -- had two children, said Gil Florini, a Catholic priest in Nice.

"He did his job as a sexton very well. He was a very kind person," said Florini.

(Additional reporting by Tangi Salaun, Sudip Kar-Gupta and Jean-Michel Belot; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Daniel Wallis)