France’s prime minister said the country had been elevated to an “emergency” terrorist attack alert Thursday, after three people were killed and others injured in what police described as a terrorist attack at the Notre Dame basilica in the southern French city of Nice.
A man armed with a knife attacked people inside the church around 9 a.m. local time Thursday, killing a woman and a man, French police confirmed to NBC News.
A third victim, another woman, ran from the church seeking refuge in a cafe but was hunted down and killed, police added. Several others have been wounded, and the suspect was shot and taken to hospital, the police added.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said the country would raise its alert level to “emergency” following the attack which comes at a time of heightened tensions in France over the republication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The caricatures are considered blasphemous by Muslims and have provoked anger among Muslims across the world.
Castex denounced the killings Thursday, saying “the attack was as cowardly as it was barbaric and puts the entire country in mourning.”
The attack comes almost two weeks after an 18-year-old Chechen refugee decapitated a school teacher who had shown pupils controversial Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the prophet during a civics class debate on freedom of expression.
The scene of the incident in central Nice was also not far from the site of the 2016 truck attack on Bastille Day crowds who were celebrating along the city’s famous tree-lined Promenade des Anglais that looks out on the Mediterranean. That attack killed dozens.
French churches were due to ring their bells at 3 p.m. local time to pay homage to the victims of the church attack.
The police said the national anti-terrorist public prosecutor’s department is now officially in charge of the investigation.
National and local police are at the scene, as well as bomb squads.
Images on French media and from news agencies showed the area cordoned off, as well as a heavy police presence outside the white basilica. French police tweeted that detonations that could be heard were being carried out by authorities but did not give further details.
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi tweeted Thursday that the suspect had been arrested and indicated it was a terrorist attack inside the Notre Dame basilica in the center of the city.
He also appeared to add that one of the victims of the attack was a caretaker at the church who was well-liked among parishioners. NBC News could not immediately verify this report.
The mayor told journalists that the suspected attacker repeated the cry ‘Allahu Akbar!” as he was being medically treated at the scene, but did not indicate where this information came from.
Estrosi also said on Twitter that he had spoken to French President Emmanuel Macron on the phone and that he would visit Nice on Thursday.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said he was holding a crisis meeting.
Thursday’s assault marked the third attack since the opening in September of a terrorism trial in the January 2015 killings at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket.
In September, a man attacked bystanders outside Charlie Hebdo’s former offices with “a butcher’s knife.” France had been bracing itself for another terror attack.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, France warned its citizens in several Muslim-majority countries to take extra security precautions as anger surged over the cartoons.
On Thursday morning, a security guard at the French consulate in the Saudi city of Jeddah was also the victim of a knife attack, according to the French Embassy in Saudi Arabia.
The attacker was immediately apprehended by Saudi security forces and the security guard was taken to hospital and is not in a life-threatening situation, the embassy said.
This is a breaking news story. Please check back in for updates.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.