Friday, July 15, 2016

TERRORISM - Attack in France


NOTE:  This is from the on-line version of the paper, therefore no link to article.

Driver plows through revelers watching Bastille Day fireworks in Nice; Hollande calls it terrorist assault

A Bastille Day fireworks celebration was shattered by death and mayhem Thursday night in France’s southern city of Nice when a large truck barreled for more than a mile through an enormous crowd of spectators, crushing dozens in what the president called a terrorist assault.  It came eight months after the Paris attacks that traumatized the nation and all of Europe.

Officials and witnesses in Nice said at least 80 people, including children, were killed by the driver of the rampaging truck, who mowed them down on the sidewalk.  He was shot to death by the police as officers scrambled to respond on what is France’s most important annual holiday.

Graphic television and video images showed the truck accelerating and tearing through the crowd, dozens of victims sprawled in its path, and the bullet- riddled windshield of the vehicle.  Municipal officials and police officers described the truck as full of weapons and grenades.

“The horror, the horror has, once again, hit France,” President François Hollande said in a nationally televised address early today.  He said the “terrorist character” of the assault was undeniable and he described the use of a large truck to deliberately kill people as “a monstrosity.”

“France has been struck on the day of her national holiday,” he said.  “Human rights are denied by fanatics, and France is clearly their target.”  Hollande, who only hours earlier had proclaimed the impending end of a state of national emergency on July 26, said it would be extended by three months and that additional soldiers would be deployed for security.

In Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama released a statement Thursday night condemning “what appears to be a horrific terrorist attack in Nice, France.”  He said he had directed his team to get in touch with French officials to assist with the investigation into the attack.

“We stand in solidarity and partnership with France, our oldest ally, as they respond to and recover from this attack,” the statement said.

French officials quickly came to the conclusion of terrorism as the likely motive, as the scope of the slaughter grew clear.  The use of a large commercial truck as the principal weapon of death raised new questions over how to prevent such attacks.  The officials warned residents to stay indoors and canceled all further scheduled festivities in Nice, a seaside city of 340,000, including a five-day jazz festival and concert tonight by Rihanna.  “There are numerous victims,” said Pierre-Henry Brandet, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, on BFM Television.  “It’s a tragic, exceptional situation.”

Witnesses described scenes of pandemonium, with conflicting accounts on social media, including a false report of hostage-taking in Nice.

“We were enjoying the celebrations when we suddenly saw people running everywhere and tables being pushed down by the movement of panic,” said Daphne Burand, 15, who was at a bar near the beach to watch the fireworks.

“No one explained to us what was happening, and I heard some gunshots not very far away,” she said.  “I waited at the bar for more information because I thought it was a false alert.  But then, people were still running.”

San Diegan Tony Molina told news stations he was vacationing in Nice with his wife and 14-year-old son and had witnessed the attack.

“It was zig-zagging,” he said of the truck in a brief interview aired by CBS News 8 in San Diego.  “I would say it was going about 25 to 30 miles an hour as it did so, and just plummeting through.  It looked like it was hitting several people.  I can tell you right now, even as I look out in front of our area, I see about 10 covered bodies that they haven’t even begun processing yet.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and the identity of the driver was not immediately clear, but the Nice Matin newspaper reported early today that he was a 31-year-old Frenchman of Tunisian origin.

Christian Estrosi, a former mayor of Nice and currently president of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, said in one of a series of Twitter messages that the truck was carrying arms and explosives when it struck the crowd about 10:30 p.m.  local time.

Estrosi told French television channel BFM TV that “the driver fired on the crowd, according to the police who killed him.”

He added that the driver’s behavior appeared to be “completely premeditated.”

The attack amounted to a gut-punch to a nation that was struggling to restore some sense of normalcy and had begun to drop its guard.

Hours after Hollande said during Bastille Day festivities in Paris that “we cannot prolong the state of emergency eternally,” the massive white truck came crashing through.

The main strip through Nice was littered with bodies, one after the other.

“Whatever the nature of what happened in Nice, the threat of terrorism is particularly high,” Brandet, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said on the iTele television station.  He added that security forces were on high alert in the area and in cities around France.

Dozens of people were seriously injured and many more were psychologically shocked, Brandet said.  The region has activated a so-called White Plan, put in place during the Nov. 13 Paris terror attacks, to open all emergency rooms to receive victims, he added.

The Islamic State, the militant group that asserted responsibility for the attacks in Paris last November that killed 130 people, did not make any immediate claims for the Nice assault.

It typically takes the Islamic State several hours, and sometimes up to one and even two days, to assert responsibility for attacks in Western countries.  It typically does so through its Amaq channel on the encrypted phone app Telegram, which serves as the group’s news wire.

However, as in the hours immediately after the Paris, Brussels and Orlando attacks, there was a now familiar celebration on channels run by groups that support the Islamic State, as well as on at least one channel affiliated with the group, also known as ISIS and ISIL.  They cheered, and laughed at the carnage.

On a channel created Thursday, called the United Cyber Caliphate, run by a group that has previously attempted to carry out cyberattacks in the Islamic State’s name, a message included a single word — France — followed by a smiley face.

The channel of an Islamic State member, Aswarti Media, which has repeatedly been shut down, was posting the phrase “Allahu Akbar.”  Yet another suspected pro-ISIS channel showed an image of the Eiffel Tower going up in flames.

Several pro-Islamic State forums posted old messages in which the terrorist group urged followers to carry out lone-wolf attacks against France.

Analysts noted that the Islamic State has called on its followers to kill civilians in Western countries by any means possible.

The Nice attack took place just as the Euro 2016 soccer tournament had concluded.  France had hosted the tournament, and the entire country had been on high alert.  There had been reports that suspects linked to the attacks in Paris and the Brussels assault in March had planned an attack during the tournament.

With tens of thousands of people gathered at stadiums and in designated “fan zones” during the games, the police and private security took extraordinary measures to try to secure the sites.

It was difficult to know if the measures were successful or if in fact there were no plans to attack the soccer tournament.

One question people will be asking is whether the security forces, as well as civilians, let their guard down once the tournament was over thinking that the danger had passed.

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