SAINT-ETIENNE-DU-ROUVRAY, France (Reuters) – Knife-wielding attackers interrupted a French church service, forced the priest to his knees and slit his throat on Tuesday, a murder made even more shocking as one of the assailants was a known would-be jihadist under supposedly tight surveillance.
As the attackers came out of the church shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is Greatest”) they were shot and killed by police.
The men arrived during morning mass in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, a working-class town near Rouen, northwest of Paris, where the 85-year-old parish priest, Father Jacques Hamel, was leading prayers.
“They forced him to his knees and he tried to defend himself and that’s when the drama began,” Sister Danielle, who escaped as the attackers slayed the priest, told RMC radio.
“They filmed themselves. It was like a sermon in Arabic around the altar,” the nun said.
Three other worshippers were held hostage until the assailants were killed, one of them was badly wounded during the attack.
News agency Amaq, which is affiliated with Islamic State, a group France is bombing in Iraq and Syria as part of a US-led coalition, said two of its “soldiers” had carried out the attack. Police said one person had been arrested.
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor Francois Molins identified one of the attackers as 19-year-old Adel Kermiche, a local man who was known to intelligence services after his failed bids to reach Syria to wage jihad.
Kermiche first tried to travel to Syria in March 2015 but was arrested in Germany. Upon his return to France he was placed under surveillance and barred from leaving his local area.
But less than two months later he slipped away and was intercepted in Turkey making his way towards Syria again.
He was sent back to France and detained until late March this year when he was released on bail. He had to wear an electronic tag, surrender his passport and was only allowed to leave his parents home for a few hours a day.