France’s national holiday turned bloody and violent Thursday night in the southern city of Nice, as a truck drove through crowds of Bastille Day revelers and gunmen attacked several tourist haunts throughout the city.
The French Interior Ministry told reporters that at least 73 people were killed, and reports from Nice described a lengthy drive on pavements, not merely a crash into a building.
Sebastian Humbert, prefect for the Alpes-Martime area, said: “A truck rammed into the crowd over a long distance, which explains this extremely heavy toll.”
The driver was reported killed in an ensuing gunfight but a second gunman escaped. There were also reports of attacks on a downtown Nice hotel and its attached restaurant.
Christian Estrosi, president of the governing council of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region and a former Nice mayor, said the truck was loaded with arms and grenades.
A manhunt was in progress early Friday local time, as the national police force told Nice residents that “Emergency operation in progress. Keep calm and avoid downtown area. Follow the official accounts to be informed.”
Wassim Bouhlel told the Associated Press in Nice that he saw a truck ram through the crowd before the driver exited wielding a gun and firing at random.
“There was carnage on the road,” Mr. Bouhlel told AP. “Bodies everywhere.”
According to the Daily Mail, “it is believed the gunmen are holding hostages in the Meridien Hotel and the Buffalo Grill restaurant … The RAID anti-terror squad has been deployed to the city.”
“The official count is increased to 60 dead, announces the prosecution office. [But] the Interior Ministry denies hostage-taking,” Edouard de Mareschal, a reporter for the French daily Le Figaro, said in a tweet written in French and translated by the Washington Times.
“This is sad. Really sad,” said Chilani Kerdoni, 45, a hotel clerk here in Paris, who was watching slack-jawed as the disturbing images moved across the television in the lobby of the hotel where he works.
“I’m afraid. I’m shocked. We were just watching all the festivities in Paris and other places and then all of a sudden this happens in Nice,” he told The Times. “Now when something like this happens, we think automatically that it’s a terrorist attack. Even if we don’t know yet who did this, the first impression goes to terrorism.”
“I am especially worried about the people who are dead,” Mr. Kerdoni said. His voice choked up as he added: “They were trying to be happy on this night. They are dead now.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but according to the Twitter account of the terrorism-news portal TRACTerrorism.org, Islamic State affiliated Telegram accounts were posting images from Nice.
Islamist terror groups, sometimes using native-French Muslims, have targeted France repeatedly in recent years and the use of vehicles and car bombs are among their known tactics.
Several dozen people injured in tragic incident in Nice France. pic.twitter.com/e4NeOlFd9j
— Christopher Williams (@cwilliams559) July 14, 2016
If the Nice incident turns out to be Islamist terrorism, it would fit with the predictions of several U.S. intelligence and law enforcement sources, who have told The Washington Times in recent weeks that they are particularly wary that another wave of attacks by Islamic State operatives may be imminent in Western Europe.
A terror attack in France on July 14 would be as symbolic as one in the U.S. on July 4.
Bastille Day is France’s biggest public holiday, celebrating a Parisian mob’s storming of the eponymous royal prison on July 14, 1789, kicking off the French Revolution — the founding event of modern France.
The attack in Nice occurred as parades were being held in cities across France under tight security.
The nation has been under an official state of emergency since last November’s coordinated Paris attacks by the Islamic State, which left 130 people dead, including 89 in a hostage situation at the Bataclan theater, and more than 360 injured.
French authorities have said the state of emergency would be lifted on July 26, although that promise could change as details emerge from the developments in Nice.
The nation also had just finished Sunday hosting of one of Europe’s biggest sporting events, the 2016 Euro soccer championships, which prompted terrorism fears also.
Security was particularly tight at a grand military parade down the Champs Elysées in Paris on Thursday, where members of the French intelligence services and Army marched for the annual Bastille Day celebrations.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry was among a host of special international guests at the parade. According to Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, President Obama “has been apprised of the situation in Nice, France, and his national security team will update him, as appropriate.”