Knifeman attacks French soldiers outside Jewish centre

Pauline Talagrand, Vincent-Xavier Morvan
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French soldiers stand guard after a knife attack on three colleagues outside a Jewish Community Center in Nice, on February 3, 2015

French soldiers stand guard after a knife attack on three colleagues outside a Jewish Community Center in Nice, on February 3, 2015 (AFP Photo/Valery Hache)

Nice (France) (AFP) - A knife-wielding man attacked three soldiers guarding a Jewish community centre on the French Riviera on Tuesday.

The attack took place in broad daylight in Nice as the troops were patrolling outside the centre as part of reinforced security measures introduced following last month's jihadist attacks in Paris that left 17 dead.

Two of the soldiers sustained knife wounds, but their lives are not in danger.

Their attacker, named by several sources as 30-year-old Moussa Coulibaly, was immediately arrested.

Anti-terrorist prosecutors in Paris took charge of the investigation and the suspect's home in Mantes-la-Jolie, a deprived district in Paris' northern suburbs, was searched following his arrest.

A second person who was seen with him before the incident was also detained.

Coulibaly was known to police in France. He had been picked up and questioned in mid-December after "aggressively" trying to spread his beliefs in a sports hall in Mantes-la-Jolie, a source said.

A Turkish security source said he had been refused entry to Turkey when he landed at Ataturk airport in Istanbul on a flight from Rome on January 29.

Turkey is frequently used as an entry point by jihadists seeking to go to fight in Syria.

Coulibaly had already been fined and given suspended jail sentences in France for offences including robbery and drug use.

"He is... known to the police," the interior and defence ministries said in a joint statement.


- No link to Paris attacker -


There was apparently no link to Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman and four Jewish shoppers in a kosher supermarket during the Paris attacks last month before being shot dead by police.

Colonel Jean-Pierre Bedu, a local military official who saw CCTV footage of the incident, said the suspect approached the soldiers and dropped a plastic bag in front of them to divert their attention, before pulling out a knife and lunging at the face of one of them.

One soldier "has a very deep cut on the cheekbone", Bedu said. "The second soldier dodged a few blows and was quite seriously injured on one arm.

"The third (soldier) brought the person under control by tackling him to the ground in the seconds that followed."

President Francois Hollande condemned what he called a "criminal act" and promised that the incident would be fully investigated.

France's interior and defence ministers visited the victims.

France is home to Europe's largest Jewish population, estimated to be between 500,000 and 600,000, as well as its largest Muslim community, estimated at around five million.

The attacks in Paris last month prompted concerns there would be repercussions in both these communities, and also highlighted that security forces were a target of extremists.

France has deployed some 10,500 soldiers outside "sensitive" sites in the wake of the attacks, notably outside Jewish and Muslim places of worship, schools and media outlets.

But in the two weeks after the January 7-9 attacks, 128 anti-Muslim incidents were reported to authorities in France, not including Paris and its surrounding region -- almost the same amount as the whole of 2014.

And anti-Semitism as a whole has risen, with figures showing anti-Jewish acts doubled over the past year.

Hollande has since vowed to combat what he calls "unbearable" rising racism and anti-Semitism in the country, where he says "conspiracy theories" and hatred for Israel are fuelling attacks.