This Article is From Jul 16, 2016

Tunisian-Born Man At Wheel In Deadly Truck Rampage In Nice, Police Say

Tunisian-Born Man At Wheel In Deadly Truck Rampage In Nice, Police Say

Attacker has been identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel who had no apparent previous links to extremism


  • Truck struck crowd after a fireworks display for the French national day
  • There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Nice bloodshed
  • France has declared 3 days of mourning and flags will fly at half-mast
Nice, France: A Tunisian-born emigre with a record of petty crime was behind the wheel of a truck that barreled into Bastille Day revelers and claimed at least 84 lives over a mile-long path of horror, a police official said Friday, as investigators explored possible links to Islamist militant networks.

The driver was identified as 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, whose identity documents, cellphone and bank card were found inside the 19-ton truck used in Thursday's mayhem along a palm-dotted French Riviera corniche in Nice, according to police official in the city. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of a formal announcement.

French media reported that Bouhlel had no apparent previous links to extremism. But the probe has shifted quickly to determine whether Bouhlel acted alone, or if he had connections and a support network that could be plotting further violence.

Bouhlel zigzagged the white box truck through the crowds, witnesses said, then opened fire on survivors before being shot dead by police. French President Francois Hollande said at least 50 people remained in critical condition, hanging between "life and death."

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday's bloodshed along the Mediterranean. One neighbor said Bouhlel was married and had three children, although that account was not immediately confirmed.

Meanwhile, French leaders vowed to expand the fight against Islamist militants beyond France's borders by boosting the country's military role in Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State has strongholds.

The truck struck the crowd after a fireworks display on the most important day in the French patriotic calendar on the Promenade des Anglais, a seaside walk in this southern French city.

Among the dead were at least two Americans, a vacationing father and son from Lakeway, Texas. More than two dozen German schoolchildren remained unaccounted for. Early Friday, tarp-covered bodies were marked by orange and white traffic-control barriers that stood like rows of tombstones.

The truck used in the attack was rented Monday from the Via Location rental agency just outside Nice, according to a woman at the agency who answered the phone Friday but said she was not authorized to give her name. She said the French Interior Ministry had asked the agency not to share further information with the investigation underway.

Amid the high-alert atmosphere in Nice, the city's airport was briefly evacuated Friday after reports of a suspicious package. No threat was discovered.

The attack plunged the country back into mourning and crisis. It was the latest in a string of mass-casualty assaults over the past 18 months that have put France on the front lines of attacks linked to the Islamic State.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Friday that terrorism was likely to plague France for the foreseeable future.

"The threat of terrorism, as we have now been saying for a long time, is weighing heavily on France, and it will continue to do so for a long time yet," Valls said after an emergency meeting in Paris. "We are facing a war waged on us by terrorism."

France had just exhaled after living for weeks with terrorism fears during the European soccer championships, which concluded Sunday. And hours before the violence, Hollande had announced that he planned to allow a state of emergency to expire at the end of the month. On Friday, Hollande said it would be extended for three months instead.

Hollande said authorities were not yet sure whether the attack was perpetrated by an individual or "perhaps multiple individuals."

The attack was a "barbaric act," Hollande said after meeting with top officials in Nice. "An individual who took a truck and murdered people with it."

"There are a lot of children, young children, children who came to see the fireworks with their families," Hollande said, "to share the amazement and the joy."

Witnesses described total chaos, with the crackle of gunfire and people screaming as they fled the scene. Graphic video and photographs flooding social media showed bodies strewn for a mile along the boulevard where the truck plowed into the crowd. Revelers ran while sirens blared.

France declared three days of mourning beginning Saturday, and flags will fly at half-staff.

The attack was the latest in a string of horrific incidents that have unfolded across Europe in the past 18 months. In March, Islamic State attackers killed 32 people in suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and a metro station.

France was rocked by a devastating terrorist attack in November, when heavily armed suicide bombers killed 130 people in several places around Paris. The Islamic State asserted responsibility for that attack, the worst bloodshed on French soil since World War II.

In an address early Friday, Hollande condemned the "attack whose terrorist nature cannot be denied." He announced that France would ramp up its military efforts in Syria and Iraq, where a U.S.-led coalition has tried to uproot the Islamic State from its strongholds.

"All of France is under the threat of Islamic terrorism," said Hollande, who returned to Paris to deal with the crisis after a private visit to Avignon, France.

"[France] is strong. It will always be stronger, I assure you, than the fanatics that want to attack it today."

The nearby city of Marseille, one of France's largest, canceled its own fireworks display in response to the attack.

The reverberations spread across Europe. Germany said it would tighten border checks, Italy ordered police officials to reinforce security at all "sensitive targets," and Belgium added additional counterterrorist measures before its own national holiday celebrations next week.

In London, the French flag flew from atop 10 Downing Street, and new Prime Minister Theresa May convened a meeting of the government's emergency "Cobra" committee. May described the attack as "horrifying" and said Britain will stand "shoulder to shoulder" with France.

In Washington, President Barack Obama released a statement Thursday night condemning the attack and said he has directed his team to get in touch with French officials to assist with the investigation.

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

In Moscow, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, said the attack underscored the need to end the violence in Syria, where the Islamic State has its de facto capital. The United States is proposing greater intelligence coordination with Russia on Syria.

"The problem," a solemn Kerry told Lavrov, "is you and I and other foreign ministers are doing this now on almost a weekly basis. And nowhere is there a greater hotbed or incubator for these terrorists than in Syria."

After more than four hours discussing whether to coordinate airstrikes against jihadists in Syria, Kerry and Lavrov went to the French Embassy in Moscow to lay a wreath and sign a book of condolences. The attack in Nice bracketed their meeting, which started with a moment of silence for the victims.

"On behalf of the people of the United States of America, we express our deepest condolences and our brother and sisterhood with the people of France. May we all show strength and purpose to end this scourge of terror and find peace in our time!" Kerry wrote in the book.

The Islamic State has previously called for attacks using vehicles, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist statements. It said supporters of the radical Islamist organization, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were sharing the news of the Nice attack and "celebrating the massacre."

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

Within half an hour of initial reports of the incident, Facebook had activated its "safety check" feature for people in Nice. On Twitter, others used the hashtag #PortesOuvertesNice ("OpenDoorsNice") to find and offer refuge to those who needed a place to stay.

The attack came on one of France's most treasured holidays, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. In Paris, the occasion is marked by a military parade down the Champs-Elysees, the oldest such parade in Europe.

"There were so many injured, and dead bodies," said Fiona Le Goff, 27, a concierge at an apartment building facing the Promenade des Anglais. "The worst was a woman whose body was just stuck to the street."

Later, she surveyed the area as forensic teams moved in. "There were people just covered with white cloths," she said. "It was . . . horrible."

Among the dead were two Americans: Sean Copeland, 50, and his 11-year-old son Brodie from Lakeway, Texas, about 20 miles west of Austin. The two were vacationing around Europe together on a trip that began in Pamplona, Spain, and continued through Barcelona.

They had stopped in Nice to celebrate Bastille Day.

"We are heartbroken and in shock over the loss of Brodie Copeland, an amazing son and brother who lit up our lives, and Sean Copeland, a wonderful husband and father," the family said in a statement released by family friend Jess Davis, which was obtained by the Austin-American Statesmen. "They are so loved . . . it was a terrible loss."

© 2016 The Washington Post

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