French anti-terrorism prosecutors are investigating a knife attack at a church in the Mediterranean city of Nice where the attacker killed three people, slitting the throat of at least one, and injured several others.
The prosecutor's office and national police said that an investigation was opened into Thursday's stabbing, which was described as an "Islamist terrorist attack" by French president Emmanuel Macron.
The assailant, who was shot and wounded by police, was identified as Brahim Aouissaoui, a 21-year-old Tunisian migrant who arrived in Italy in late September and later travelled to France, sources close to the inquiry said.
The killings mark 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 over caricatures depicting Prophet Mohammad.
The body of a woman whose throat had been cut in an apparent beheading attempt was found inside the Basilica of Notre-Dame, in the heart of the Mediterranean resort city, according to Agence France-Presse.
The body of a man, a church employee of about 45 years of age, was also found inside the church, while another woman succumbed to her injuries after seeking refuge in a nearby bar, the agency added
Father Philippe Asso, who serves at the basilica, told AFP that no mass was underway at the time of the attack, but the church opens around 8 am (12.30 pm IST) and "people come in to pray at all hours".
Churches across France sounded death knells, the traditional bell tolls to mark a death, at 3 pm (local time).
Thursday's attacker was believed to be acting alone and police are not searching for other assailants, said two police officials, who were not authorised to speak to the media.
"He cried 'Allah Akbar!' over and over, even after he was injured," said Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, who told BFM television that three people had died, two inside the church and a third who fled but was mortally wounded. "The meaning of his gesture left no doubt."
Interior minister GÃ©rald Darmanin appealed to people to avoid the area in the centre of the French Riviera city. He said he was convening a crisis meeting at the ministry in Paris, as per a report on BBC.
In Nice, images on French media showed the neighborhood locked down and surrounded by police and emergency vehicles. Sounds of explosions could be heard as sappers exploded suspicious objects.
The lower house of parliament suspended a debate on France's new virus restrictions and held a moment of silence for the victims. The prime minister rushed from the hall to a crisis center overseeing the aftermath of the Nice attack.
The killings, which occurred just ahead of the Catholic holy day of All Saints Day on Sunday, prompted the government to raise the terror alert level to maximum nationwide.
Shortly after the attack, police in the city of Lyon said they had arrested an Afghan who was spotted carrying a 30-centimetre (12-inch) knife while trying to board a tram.
Macron, who quickly travelled to Nice, announced increased surveillance of churches by France's Sentinelle military patrols, which would be bolstered to 7,000 troops up from original 3,000.
"Quite clearly, it is France that is being attacked," he said. "If we are attacked, it is because of our values."
France's chief anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard was to hold a press conference in Nice at 9 pm (1.30 am Friday IST).
France on edge
Speaking to AFP, Daniel Conilh, a 32-year-old waiter at the Grand Cafe de Lyon, a block from the church, said it was shortly before 9 am (local time) when "shots were fired and everybody took off running."
"A woman came in straight from the church and said, 'Run, run, someone has been stabbing people'," he told AFP.
French anti-terror prosecutors have taken over the inquiry.
France has been on high alert since the January 2015 massacre at the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo which marked the beginning of a wave of jihadist attacks that have killed more than 250 people. The magazine was targetted for publishing caricatures depicting Prophet Mohammad.
Tensions have heightened since last month, when the trial opened for 14 suspected accomplices in the 2015 attack.
The paper marked the start of the court proceedings by republishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that infuriated millions of Muslims worldwide.
Just days later, an 18-year-old man from Pakistan seriously injured two people with a meat cleaver outside Charlie Hebdo's former offices in Paris.
And two weeks ago, history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded outside his school in a Paris suburb after he showed some of the Mohammed cartoons to students as part of a course on free speech.
The assailant, an 18-year-old Chechen named Abdullakh Anzorov, apparently acted after some angry parents denounced the teacher on social media.
'Message of peace'
Paty's murder prompted Macron to promise a crackdown on Islamic extremism, including shutting down mosques and organisations accused of fomenting radicalism and violence.
But the move has inflamed tensions with many Muslims saying Macron is unfairly targeting France's estimated five to six million Muslims " the largest community in Europe.
Protests against France have erupted in several Muslim countries, including new rallies Thursday in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and the Palestinian territories.
Shortly after the attack in Nice, Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad sparked outrage by tweeting that "Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past". Twitter later deleted his post.
Turkey, which has been at loggerheads with France in the wake of the publication of the cartoons, meanwhile condemned the attack on the church goers.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry said, "We stand in solidarity with the people of France against terror and violence."
Relations between Turkey and France hit a new low after Turkey's president accused Macron of Islamophobia over the caricatures and questioned his mental health, prompting Paris to recall its ambassador to Turkey for consultations.
Adding to the nervousness, a Saudi citizen wounded a guard in a knife attack at the French consulate in Jeddah on Thursday.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Thursday proffered "a message of peace to the Muslim world", saying France was "the country of tolerance".
"Do not listen to the voices that want to stoke distrust," he said in the French parliament.
In Nice, painful memories remain fresh of a jihadist attack during Bastille Day fireworks on 14 July, 2016, when a man rammed his truck into a crowded promenade, killing 86 people.
Abdallah Zekri, director-general of the French Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM), said: "I can only denounce as strongly as possible this act of cowardice against the innocent."
Zekri called on French Muslims to cancel festivities to mark the Mawlid, or the Prophet's Birthday, which ends Thursday, "in solidarity with the victims and their loved ones".
With inputs from agencies