Two attackers took hostages inside a French church during morning mass on Tuesday near the city of Rouen, killing a priest by slitting his throat before being shot and killed by police, French officials said.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The attack took place during morning mass at the church in the small northwestern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.
Father Jacques Hamel, 86, was killed, said Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen. Another person inside the church was seriously injured and is hovering between life and death, Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said.
“At one point, the two assailants came out of the church and that’s when they were killed by the BRI elite force,” Brandet told France Info radio, referring to France’s specialized police group.
Police managed to rescue the only three other people inside the church at the time.
A police source said it appeared that the priest had had his throat slit.
Brandet, speaking later on BFM TV, said the RAID special intervention force was searching the church and its perimeter for possible explosives. Terrorism investigators have been summoned, he said.
Hostage-takers pledged allegiance to ISIS
The investigation was handed to the anti-terrorist unit of the Paris prosecutor’s office.
French President François Hollande, who travelled to the town after news of the attack, said the two hostage-takers had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
“Daesh has declared war on us, we must fight this war by all means, while respecting the rule of law, what makes us a democracy,” he told reporters, using another name for ISIS.
He called it a “vile terrorist attack” and said it’s another sign that France is at war with the extremist group, which has claimed a string of attacks on France.
“We must lead this war with all our means,” he said.
Hollande expressed support for all France’s Catholics but said the attack targets “all the French.”
In a statement, ISIS’s Amaq news agency said the hostage-takers, “carried out the operation in response to the call to target the countries of the crusader coalition.”
Attacker known to police
A police official said one of the attackers was turned back after trying to go to Syria. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the man wore an electronic bracelet to monitor his movements.
A local Muslim leader says one of the men who attacked the church was on French police’s radar.
Mohammed Karabila, president of the Regional Council of the Muslim Faith for Haute-Normandie and head of the local Muslim cultural centre, told The Associated Press that “the person that did this odious act is known, and he has been followed by the police for at least a year and a half.”
He said the attacker “went to Turkey and security services were alerted after this.” He had no information about the second attacker.
Karabila said he hoped that interfaith dialogue in his region would not be damaged.
The attackers’ identities have not been released.
The Vatican condemned what it said was a “barbarous killing”.
“We are particularly shocked because this horrible violence took place in a church, in which God’s love is announced,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.
He said the pope was feeling “the pain and horror of this absurd violence” and “condemned in the most radical way any form of hate”.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the attack “barbaric” and said it was a blow to all Catholics and the whole of France. “We will stand together,” Valls said on Twitter.
Horreur face à l’attaque barbare d’une église de Seine-Maritime. La France entière et tous les catholiques sont meurtris. Nous ferons bloc.
France already on high alert
The attack will heap yet more pressure on Hollande to regain control of national security, with France already under a state of emergency 10 months ahead of a presidential election.
Hollande was accompanied to Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray by Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
Cazeneuve has come under fire from Conservative politicians for not doing enough to prevent the Bastille Day Nice attack. French lawmakers approved a six-month extension of emergency rule after the July 14 attack while the Socialist government also said it would step up strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS extremists have urged followers to attack French churches and the group is believed to have planned at least one church attack earlier.
In April 2015, an Algerian student who was arrested after shooting himself in the leg was found with heavy weapons, bulletproof vests and documents linked to ISIS. He is charged with killing a young woman inside her car the same day. According to French authorities, the suspect, Sid Ahmed Ghlam, was sent by the Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud to attack a church in Villejuif, just outside of Paris.
A cell directed by Abaaoud later carried out the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and the March 22 attacks in Brussels that killed 32 people.
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