A British girl on holiday with her family was among four toddlers and two adults stabbed in an “odious and unspeakable” attack in an open-air playground by a man armed with a knife.
Witnesses described scenes of panic as screaming mothers sought to protect children from the assailant, who rampaged around a lakeside park in Annecy, in the French Alps. At least one child was stabbed in a pram despite desperate efforts by a woman to push him aside.
Video showed the suspect – later identified as a Syrian father who came to Europe a decade ago as a refugee – slashing at his victims and shouting “in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The children – aged between 22 months and three years – underwent surgery for serious injuries but were later said to be in a stable condition.
Annecy prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis said the young British girl was a tourist.
Rishi Sunak called it an “unfathomable” attack while his French counterpart Elisabeth Borne, who visited the scene, said it was “odious and unspeakable.”
Bystanders could be heard screaming “Police! Police!” as they tried to intervene; one threw his backpack at the man.
“He jumped (in the playground), started shouting and then went towards the strollers, repeatedly hitting the little ones with a knife,” a witness called Ferdinand told BFM TV. “He clearly targeted the babies.”
“Mothers were crying, everybody was running,” said George, owner of a nearby restaurant.
Mme Borne said the attacker was a 31-year old Syrian national who was granted asylum in Sweden 10 years ago and was carrying Swedish identity documents.
He had entered France legally and applied for asylum, she said, though he was not eligible because Sweden had granted him asylum in April. On his claim he described himself as a Syrian Christian.
Officials said the suspect had left behind a wife and a three-year-old daughter in Sweden. A woman identified as his ex-wife told BFM TV: “He does not call me for four months. [Our relationship] stopped because we lived in Sweden and he did not want to live in Sweden anymore.”
The attack began at about 9.45am local time at the playground near Annecy’s famous lake, an area that locals and tourists alike prize for its tranquility and stunning views. The man had walked past adults in the park to head for the play area. Within minutes, police were pursuing him. He then lunged at an elderly man. Police fired shots before detaining him.
One of the adults was hurt both by the attacker’s knife and later by a shot fired by police as they were making the arrest, Ms Bonnet-Mathis said.
Former Liverpool FC player, Anthony Le Tallec, was jogging nearby and witnessed the attack.
‘‘There's someone stabbing everyone along the lakeshore. He’s knifed children,’’ Le Tallec, quoted a mother as telling him in a video he posted on Instagram.
Confused, Le Tallec said he kept jogging but soon saw a man heading his way with police officers in pursuit.
‘‘I see that he’s heading straight for a group of elderly men and women. He attacks one grandpa, stabs him once, the cops can’t catch him, so I tell the cops, ‘Shoot him’,’’ Le Tallec continued. ‘‘Then they start shooting, they shoot at the person, right in front of me.’’
The attacker did not appear to have a ‘‘terrorist motive’’, Ms Bonnet-Mathis said, and an attempted murder investigation was ongoing.
He ‘‘has no criminal record, is not known to any intelligence service, has no psychiatric history and has been identified,’’ said Mme Borne. She added that the man appeared to be “homeless” and “isolated’’.
Some politicians on the right and far-right in France seized on the identity of the suspect to call for more scrutiny of France’s immigration and asylum policy
Eleanor Vincent, an American author on holiday in Annecy, said crowds stood in ‘‘absolute silence’’ as the tragedy unfolded. ‘‘As a parent who has lost a child, I know what these parents are experiencing. It’s a horror beyond belief,’’ she added.
Deputy Mayor of Annecy, Chantale Farmer, said schools were briefly put into lockdown after the attack and that a group of children who had witnessed it were being given psychological support.
Mr Sunak said: ‘‘My thoughts are with all of those affected by the shocking attack in Annecy. The UK and France have always stood together against acts of violence, and we do so again.’’
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report
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