Four children — aged between 22 months and three years old — were stabbed Thursday in a playground in the Alpine town of Annecy, a normally idyllic lakeside spot popular with tourists.
As social media flooded with praise for rescue workers and a man hailed as a hero for chasing the attacker out of the area, sources close to the investigation said the attacker was remaining “totally silent” and “obstructing justice.”
Prosecutors insisted they did not see a terror motive in the attack, but the rampage intensified tensions in France over immigration, with right-wing politicians seizing on the suspect’s origins.
Macron and his wife Brigitte arrived in the southeastern city of Grenoble, where three of the children are being treated.
“Everything that I was told is heading in the right direction,” he said in Annecy after visiting the wounded toddlers in hospital, adding that news on their condition was “positive”.
“Attacking children is the most barbaric act there is,” he said, highlighting his “pride” over the work of rescuers.
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The fourth child, a Dutch citizen, is in a Swiss hospital over the border in Geneva. She is “out of danger”, the Netherlands’ Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said.
One of the victims is British and the others French.
‘Pray for the children’
Macron also met the civilians being hailed as heroes for chasing the attacker from the playground.
“Pray for the children, I am doing fine,” wrote Henri, one of those who intervened, on Instagram as the hashtag #MerciHenri trended on social media.
— Olivia (@olivia220) June 9, 2023
Henri joined hundreds of faithful at a mass held Friday for the victims.
An impromptu shrine emerged overnight at the park, where people placed candles, flowers and messages.
“We are not prepared for these kinds of events,” said local Leo Ganassali, 21, as he laid flowers.
“I came as a child to play in this park and to see it in mourning is very, very tough.”
The attacker, dressed in black and carrying a blade around 10 centimetres (four inches) long, could be heard shouting “in the name of Jesus Christ”, according to a video taken by a bystander and seen by AFP.
Regional prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis said the detention of the suspect, named as Abdalmasih H., who is under investigation for attempted murder, had been extended after a psychiatric examination.
Recently divorced from a Swedish national and in his early 30s, the suspect had previously lived for 10 years in Sweden where he was granted refugee status in April, security sources and his ex-wife told AFP.
“He called me around four months ago. He was living in a church,” his ex-wife said, adding that he left the country because he had been unable to get Swedish nationality.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told broadcaster TF1 that “for reasons not well explained he had also sought asylum in Switzerland, Italy and France”.
It emerged that his application in France was rejected last Sunday as he already enjoyed refugee status in Sweden, which Darmanin described as a “troubling coincidence”.
Witnesses described the assailant running around the park on the banks of Lake Annecy wearing a bandana and sunglasses, apparently attacking people at random. Armed police arrested him at the scene.
Several observers have expressed concern that the video of the attack circulated on Twitter for several hours.
A man reacts next to flowers for the victims of a stabbing attack that occurred in the ‘Jardins de l’Europe’ park in Annecy, French Alps, on June 9, 2023. Photo: OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP
‘Time of emotion’
France has suffered a series of attacks in the last decade or so, most of them by Islamic extremists.
Most recently, the beheading of a teacher in broad daylight in 2020 near his school in a Paris suburb by a radicalised Chechen refugee led to a wave of shock and a national debate about the influence of radical Islam in deprived areas.
Thursday’s attack spurred fresh debate about France’s immigration and asylum policy.
“It seems like the culprit has the same profile that you see often in these attacks,” the head of the right-wing Republicans party, Eric Ciotti, told reporters at parliament.
Far-right National Rally (RN) figurehead Marine Le Pen told French radio that France should “regain sovereignty” on immigration.
But government spokesman Olivier Veran said such debates were premature “when we are in the time of emotion, when the kids are on the operating table.”
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne invited “everyone to show dignity in these circumstances”.
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