France on Friday raised its security alert to the highest level after a man of Chechen origin stabbed a teacher to death and severely wounded two other adults at a school in the northern town of Arras in a knife attack that echoed the grisly slaying of a teacher in 2020.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said France was now on its highest state of alert and that the Arras attack bore a link to events in the Middle East, where civilians were fleeing northern Gaza ahead of an anticipated Israeli ground offensive in the besieged enclave following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
The attack came a day after French President Emmanuel Macron called for unity in a primetime speech amid fears of a spillover of the Israel-Hamas in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish communities.
France has banned pro-Palestinian rallies, but there were sporadic Palestinian solidarity gatherings on Thursday night, which were broken up by police firing tear gas and water cannons.
Visiting the scene of the attack in Arras on Friday, Macron paid his respects to the slain teacher, whose body still lay under a cover surrounded by a pool of blood.
“This school was struck by the barbarity of Islamist terrorism,” Macron said, adding that the victim had “probably saved many lives” with his courage in seeking to block the attacker.
Macron said a second attack had been foiled elsewhere in France by security forces on Friday, but did not give details.
The suspected attacker, Mohammed Moguchkov, who is in his 20s, was arrested by police.
He is from Russia’s mainly Muslim southern Caucasus region of Chechnya and was already on a French national register known as “Fiche S” as a potential security threat, a police source told AFP, and was under electronic and physical surveillance by France’s domestic intelligence agency, the DGSI.
The suspect cried the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar!” (God is greatest!), according to the preliminary elements of the investigation.
Moguchkov had been detained on Thursday for questioning on suspicions of radicalism, but investigators found no weapon or threat or indication that he was preparing an attack, said Darmanin.
“There was a race against the clock. But there was no threat, no weapon, no indication. We did our our job seriously,″ said Darmanin in an interview with TF1 television.
The victim, a French teacher, was stabbed in the throat and chest.
Those wounded were a school security agent, who was stabbed multiple times and is fighting for his life, and a teacher, who is in a less serious condition, the source added.
No pupils at the school were hurt, said another police source.
The attack comes almost three years to the day after the October 16, 2020 beheading of teacher Samuel Paty, also by a Chechen man, near his school in a Paris suburb.
“Three years after the assassination of Samuel Paty, terrorism has struck a school again and in a context that we all know,” Macron said.
Police say Moguchkov’s brother, aged 17, was detained close to another school.
Moguchkov’s profile is one of “a radicalised individual whose potential (to act) is known, but who suddenly decides to take action,” a French intelligence source, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
Panic in school
The pupils and teachers were confined to the school premises before being allowed out later in the afternoon.
A large security cordon was set up around the school, where the police, firefighters and emergency services were deployed, AFP journalists said.
Parents gathered in front of the school, where the pupils were visible through the windows.
A philosophy teacher who witnessed the attack, Martin Dousseau, described a moment of panic during break-time, when the schoolchildren found themselves face-to-face with the armed man.
“He attacked canteen staff. I wanted to go down to intervene, he turned to me, chased me and asked me if I was a history and geography teacher,” said Dousseau. “We barricaded ourselves in, then the police arrived and immobilised him.”
A terror investigation was opened into the attack, prosecutors said.
The country has suffered a series of attacks by Islamist extremists since 2015 including the suicide and gun attacks in November 2015 on targets in Paris claimed by the Islamic State group (IS) that killed 130 people.
There has been a relative lull in recent years, even as officials have warned that the threat remains.
There have been calls in Muslim nations for mass protests after Friday prayers over Israel’s intense bombing campaign in Gaza.
Macron said in an address to the nation on Thursday that 582 religious and cultural facilities in France were receiving stepped-up police protection after the attack by Hamas on Israel.
Speaking in Arras, he reaffirmed his message from that address for the French to “stand shoulder to shoulder” and “stay united”.
Saying the school would reopen on Saturday, he added: “Our choice is made not to give in to terror, not to let anything divide us.”
French Education Minister Gabriel Attal said in a message to regional education officials that security should be reinforced at schools “without delay”.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)
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