The investigation into a gruesome attack by a Tunisian man who killed three people in a French church had a second suspect in custody Friday, as France heightened its security alert amid religious and geopolitical tensions around cartoons mocking the Muslim prophet.
Muslims held more anti-France protests across the Mideast and beyond on Friday, while mourners placed flowers, messages, and candles at the entrance to the Notre Dame Basilica in the French Riviera city of Nice, where Thursday’s knife attack took place.
The attacker, Ibrahim Issaoui, was seriously wounded by police and hospitalized in life-threatening condition, authorities said. Anti-terrorism prosecutors in France and Tunisia are investigating.
A new suspect is a 47-year-old man believed to have been in contact with the attacker the night before the attack, according to a judicial official. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.
The victims included 55-year-old Vincent Loques, a father of two who was the church’s sacristan, in charge of its holy objects, according to local broadcaster France-Bleu. Another was a 44-year-old mother of three from Brazil named Simone who had studied cooking in Nice and helped poor communities, France-Bleu reported.
In an interview broadcast Friday with Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV, the attacker’s mother said she was shocked by the events.
From the Tunisian province of Sfax, the mother, her eyes wet with tears, said she was surprised to hear her son was in France when he called upon his arrival and had no idea what he was planning. “You don’t know the French language, you don’t know anyone there, you’re going to live alone there, why, why did you go there?” she said she told him over the phone at the time.
His brother told Al-Arabiya that Issaoui had informed the family he would sleep in front of the church, and sent them a photograph showing him at the cathedral where the attack took place. “He didn’t tell me anything,” he said. A neighbor said he knew the assailant when he was a mechanic and held various other odd jobs, and had shown no signs of radicalization.
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said the suspect is a Tunisian born in 1999 who reached the Italian island of Lampedusa, a key landing point for migrants crossing in boats from North Africa, on Sept. 20 and traveled to Bari, a port city in southern Italy, on Oct. 9. It is not clear when he arrived in Nice.
Tunisians fleeing a virus-battered economy make up the largest contingent of migrants landing in Italy this year. Italian media reported that from Lampedusa, where Issaoui was one of 1,300 arriving migrants on Sept. 20, he was placed with 800 others on a virus quarantine boat in Puglia.
(With input from AP)