Men who murdered priest in Normandy church were Isis followers, says Hollande
Two men shot dead after taking five hostages and killing priest in church at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen in France
Duration Time 1:13
François Hollande: Normandy church attackers claimed to be from Isis
Kim Willsher in Paris and Julian Borger
Tuesday 26 July 2016 14.16 BST
Last modified on Tuesday 26 July 2016 15.27 BST
The murder of a priest and the wounding of one of his parishioners in Normandy was an act of terrorism carried out by two followers of Islamic State, the French president, François Hollande, has said.
The men, armed with knives, entered the church at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, at 9.43am local time during morning prayers and took five hostages. Father Jacques Hamel, 84, who was held captive along with two nuns and two parishioners, had his throat slit, investigative sources said, while the other victim was described as being seriously injured and between “life and death”.
The two hostage-takers were shot dead by police as they came out of the church. One person has been detained in the investigation into the attack, the Paris prosecutor’s office said, without giving any further details.
Photo: François Hollande speaks to Hubert Wulfranc, the mayor of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, after the attack. Photograph: Boris Maslard/AFP/Getty Images
Hollande described the incident as “an ignoble terrorist attack” by two supporters of Isis. The group, which claimed responsibility for the attack via its affiliated Amaq news agency, “has declared war on us”, Hollande said, adding that it was a war France would have to fight by remaining united.
According to the French channel BFMTV, one of the two killers, as yet unnamed, lived in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray and had tried to travel to fight in Syria in 2015 but had been sent back by Turkish border authorities and jailed in France. He was released in March this year despite the protests of prosecutors, had an electronic tag that allowed authorities to monitor his movements, and was only allowed out of his house between 8.30am and 12.30pm.
Pierre Henry Brandet, an interior ministry spokesman, said the church was surrounded by the BRI, France’s anti-gang brigade, who shot the attackers as they came out. Hollande met members of the brigade, who wore black balaclavas to mask their identities, and praised them for the speed of their intervention, which he said “prevented a much higher toll and saved the lives of hostages”.
Hollande added: “I have met with the family of the priest and I have spoken to the people kept hostage who expressed their pain and sadness as well as a wish to comprehend what has happened.”
A witness whose home overlooks the church told BFMTV: “There were more and more police … then a crescendo of gunfire. Of course, given what is happening in the world, we thought of a [terrorist] attack. It was hard to believe what was happening.”
The prime minister, Manuel Valls, said the “barbaric” attack was a blow to the Catholic community and the whole of France.
The murdered priest had worked in the parish for 10 years. He should have retired at 75 but wanted to continue serving the church and community, local residents said.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Pope Francis “shares the pain and horror of this absurd violence”, adding that the attack created “immense pain and worry”.
Father Jacques Hamel: ’A good priest … who did his job to the very end’
Francis issued “the most severe condemnation of all forms of hatred” and said he was appalled “because this horrific violence took place in a church, a sacred place” and involved the “barbaric” killing of a priest.
A woman who worshipped at the church described Hamel as “a man who did his job to the end. He was elderly but was always available for whoever. He was a good priest.”
She added: “He has been here for a long time and many parishioners knew him well. He lived in the rectory at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray.”
Father Philippe Maheut, vicar general of the Rouen diocese, said everyone was horribly shocked that the priest had been killed while celebrating mass.
“We ask ourselves how we have arrived at this point,” he told BFMTV. “My message would be we have to continue to meet, to know each other, understand each other, support each other. Perhaps the death of this poor man will produce an electroshock, will be such a strong symbol that people will say we have to do something, but we have said that before.”
Hervé Morin, president of the region, said: “This man was a good man, he always had a kind word for everyone. He served at this church for 30 years. Everyone is shocked. This was not just the killing of a man, it was the cutting of the throat of a priest … an act sufficiently thought out to further destabilise French society … and that’s the risk. French society is in danger.”
France remains on high alert nearly two weeks after a man ploughed a truck into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 84 people and injuring more than 300.
The Nice attack was the third major attack on France in 18 months and was claimed by Isis. Two attacks in Germany claimed by Isis since then have heightened the tension in Europe.
Hollande told reporters near the scene of Tuesday’s killings: “The people of France should know that they are under threat but they are not the only country, there is Germany and others, and that their strength lies in their solidarity.”
Analysts said that while the threat was everywhere, the attack marked a new stage in Isis action, demonstrating that even in a small town of 27,000 inhabitants, “even in church”, the French are not safe. “We are at war, and we are at war everywhere on French soil,” was the message, one terrorism expert told French television.
After the attack in Nice, France extended a state of emergency for another six months. The measure gives police extra powers to carry out searches and place people under house arrest. It was the fourth time the security measures have been extended since Isis followers staged a mass attack on Paris in November, killing 130 people in the Bataclan concert hall, the national stadium, and city centre restaurants.