France attack: Church sexton had throat slit while preparing for Mass

As he did every day, Vincent Loques, sexton of the Notre Dame church in the French city of Nice opened up the doors around 8:30am. There were few people around; the first Mass of the day was not due to start for another two hours.

But soon after he started work on Thursday morning, a Tunisian man armed with a knife entered the church and, over the course of 20 minutes, slit the 55-year-old sexton's throat, beheaded a 60-year-old woman, and badly wounded a third woman who was 44, according to prosecutors.

The sexton and the older woman died on the spot, while the younger woman managed to make it to a cafe across the street, where she died from her wounds, France's chief anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard said later on Thursday.

The attacker was shot by police officers who detained him, and is being treated in hospital.

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Forensic Police work outside the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 29, 2020 after a knife-wielding man kills three people in the church, slitting the throat of at least one of them, in what officials are treating as the latest jihadist attack to rock the country. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
A muslim faithful lays a white flower at the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica in Marseille, southeastern France, on October 29,2020, during a gathering to pay tribute to the victims of a knife attack inside a church in Nice, on the French Riviera. - A knife attacker killed three people, cutting the throat of at least one woman, inside a church in Nice on October 29, in what France has called an Islamist terrorist attack. (Photo by Christophe SIMON / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty Images)
People lights candle outside the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 29, 2020 in tribute to the three victims of a knife attacker, cutting the throat of at least one woman, inside the church of the French Riviera city. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
A sign reading: "Together against hate and terrorism. Together for an open society" in German and French lies October 29, 2020 at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the Nice stabbings, in front of the French embassy in Berlin. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP) (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)
CANNES, FRANCE - OCTOBER 29: General view of the Black Carpet to pay Tribute To Nice Attack Victims at Palais des Festivals on October 29, 2020 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
French soldiers and policemen secure the site of a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - France's national anti-terror prosecutors said Thursday they have opened a murder inquiry after a man killed three people at a basilica in central Nice and wounded several others. The city's mayor, Christian Estrosi, told journalists at the scene that the assailant, detained shortly afterwards by police, "kept repeating 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Greater) even while under medication." He added that President Emmanuel Macron would be arriving shortly in Nice. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
French forensics officers operate outside the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice after a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - France's national anti-terror prosecutors said Thursday they have opened a murder inquiry after a man killed three people at a basilica in central Nice and wounded several others. The city's mayor, Christian Estrosi, told journalists at the scene that the assailant, detained shortly afterwards by police, "kept repeating 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Greater) even while under medication." He added that President Emmanuel Macron would be arriving shortly in Nice. (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron (L) speaks to the press as Nice's mayor Christian Estrosi (R) listens outside the the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 29, 2020 after a knife-wielding man kills three people at the church, slitting the throat of at least one of them, in what officials are treating as the latest jihadist attack to rock the country. (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Chief superintendent Emmanuelle Joubert (1st-L) introduces her teams to French President Emmanuel Macron (3rd-L) and Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi (4th-L) visit the scene of a knife attack at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice in Nice on October 29, 2020. - France's national anti-terror prosecutors said Thursday they have opened a murder inquiry after a man killed three people at a basilica in central Nice and wounded several others. The city's mayor, Christian Estrosi, told journalists at the scene that the assailant, detained shortly afterwards by police, "kept repeating 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Greater) even while under medication." He added that President Emmanuel Macron would be arriving shortly in Nice. (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
A French army soldier stands by the the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 29, 2020 after a knife-wielding man kills three people at the church, slitting the throat of at least one of them, in what officials are treating as the latest jihadist attack to rock the country. (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron (3rd-L) and Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi (2nd-L) visit the scene of a knife attack at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice in Nice on October 29, 2020. - France's national anti-terror prosecutors said Thursday they have opened a murder inquiry after a man killed three people at a basilica in central Nice and wounded several others. The city's mayor, Christian Estrosi, told journalists at the scene that the assailant, detained shortly afterwards by police, "kept repeating 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Greater) even while under medication." He added that President Emmanuel Macron would be arriving shortly in Nice. (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
NICE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 29: Police patrol near Notre-Dame basilica on October 29, 2020 in Nice, France. A man armed with a knife fatally attacked people in the Notre-Dame church in Nice, located in the heart of the city. (Photos by Arnold Jerocki /Getty Images)
NICE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 29: Police patrol near Notre-Dame basilica on October 29, 2020 in Nice, France. A man armed with a knife fatally attacked people in the Notre-Dame church in Nice, located in the heart of the city. (Photos by Arnold Jerocki /Getty Images)
NICE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 29: A forensic team evacuates a body of the victims from the church on October 29, 2020 in Nice, France. A man armed with a knife fatally attacked people in the Notre-Dame church in Nice, located in the heart of the city. (Photos by Arnold Jerocki /Getty Images)
A French forensics officer operate leaves the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice after inspecting the site of a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - France's national anti-terror prosecutors said Thursday they have opened a murder inquiry after a man killed three people at a basilica in central Nice and wounded several others. The city's mayor, Christian Estrosi, told journalists at the scene that the assailant, detained shortly afterwards by police, "kept repeating 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Greater) even while under medication." He added that President Emmanuel Macron would be arriving shortly in Nice. (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Police officers stand guard by the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 29, 2020 after a knife-wielding man kills three people at the church, slitting the throat of at least one of them, in what officials are treating as the latest jihadist attack to rock the country. (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
A relative of the sacristan victim of a knife attack cries in front of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice in Nice on October 29, 2020. - France's national anti-terror prosecutors said Thursday they have opened a murder inquiry after a man killed three people at a basilica in central Nice and wounded several others. The city's mayor, Christian Estrosi, told journalists at the scene that the assailant, detained shortly afterwards by police, "kept repeating 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Greater) even while under medication." He added that President Emmanuel Macron would be arriving shortly in Nice. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
President of the National Assembly Richard Ferrand (L, behind the upper desk), French Prime Minister Jean Castex (2nd L, behind the lower desk) and the MP's observe a minute's silence in tribute to the victims of a knife attack in Nice, before Castex's speech at the National Assembly ahead of the MPs's vote on the measures taken to curb the spread of the Covid-19 caused by the novel coronavirus, at the Palais Bourbon in Paris on October 29, 2020. - President Emmanuel Macron announced on October 28, 2020 a new coronavirus lockdown until at least December 1, hoping to bring under control an outbreak that is poised to overwhelm hospitals in a matter of days. He admitted that a curfew for Paris and other major cities imposed two weeks ago had failed to stop a second wave of cases that has sent the death toll in France to nearly 35,000. (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP) (Photo by BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman kneels by a police car as she cries in the streets after a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - A man wielding a knife outside a church in the southern French city of Nice slit the throat of one person, leaving another dead and injured several others in an attack on Thursday morning, officials said. The suspected assailant was detained shortly afterwards, a police source said, while interior minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter that he had called a crisis meeting after the attack. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
French members of the elite tactical police unit RAID enter to search the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice as forensics officers wait after a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - France's national anti-terror prosecutors said Thursday they have opened a murder inquiry after a man killed three people at a basilica in central Nice and wounded several others. The city's mayor, Christian Estrosi, told journalists at the scene that the assailant, detained shortly afterwards by police, "kept repeating 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Greater) even while under medication." He added that President Emmanuel Macron would be arriving shortly in Nice. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
French members of the elite tactical police unit RAID enter to search the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice as forensics officers wait outside after a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - A man wielding a knife outside a church in the southern French city of Nice slit the throat of one person, leaving another dead and injured several others in an attack on Thursday morning, officials said. The suspected assailant was detained shortly afterwards, a police source said, while interior minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter that he had called a crisis meeting after the attack. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - French policemen stand guard the site of a knife attack at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice in Nice on October 29, 2020, as forensics officers prepare to enter. - France's national anti-terror prosecutors said Thursday they have opened a murder inquiry after a man killed three people at a basilica in central Nice and wounded several others. The city's mayor, Christian Estrosi, told journalists at the scene that the assailant, detained shortly afterwards by police, "kept repeating 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Greater) even while under medication." He added that President Emmanuel Macron would be arriving shortly in Nice. (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD / AFP) (Photo by ERIC GAILLARD/AFP via Getty Images)
A French policeman pushes bystanders back off the street after a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - A man wielding a knife outside a church in the southern French city of Nice slit the throat of one person, leaving another dead and injured several others in an attack on Thursday morning, officials said. The suspected assailant was detained shortly afterwards, a police source said, while interior minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter that he had called a crisis meeting after the attack. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
French forensics officers arrive at the site of a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - A man wielding a knife outside a church in the southern French city of Nice slit the throat of one person, leaving another dead and injured several others in an attack on Thursday morning, officials said. The suspected assailant was detained shortly afterwards, a police source said, while interior minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter that he had called a crisis meeting after the attack. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
Bystanders wait next to a police car after a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - A man wielding a knife outside a church in the southern French city of Nice slit the throat of one person, leaving another dead and injured several others in an attack on Thursday morning, officials said. The suspected assailant was detained shortly afterwards, a police source said, while interior minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter that he had called a crisis meeting after the attack. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
French policemen stand guard a street after a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - A man wielding a knife outside a church in the southern French city of Nice slit the throat of one person, leaving another dead and injured several others in an attack on Thursday morning, officials said. The suspected assailant was detained shortly afterwards, a police source said, while interior minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter that he had called a crisis meeting after the attack. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
French policemen stand guard a street after a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - A man wielding a knife outside a church in the southern French city of Nice slit the throat of one person, leaving another dead and injured several others in an attack on Thursday morning, officials said. The suspected assailant was detained shortly afterwards, a police source said, while interior minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter that he had called a crisis meeting after the attack. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
French forensics officers arrive at the site of a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - A man wielding a knife outside a church in the southern French city of Nice slit the throat of one person, leaving another dead and injured several others in an attack on Thursday morning, officials said. The suspected assailant was detained shortly afterwards, a police source said, while interior minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter that he had called a crisis meeting after the attack. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
French policemen and soldiers stand guard a street after a knife attack in Nice on October 29, 2020. - A man wielding a knife outside a church in the southern French city of Nice slit the throat of one person, leaving another dead and injured several others in an attack on Thursday morning, officials said. The suspected assailant was detained shortly afterwards, a police source said, while interior minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter that he had called a crisis meeting after the attack. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
29 October 2020, Berlin: Katrin Göring-Eckardt, a federal Green politician, attends a memorial service on Pariser Platz. After the knife attack in a church in Nice in southern France, the FDP interior politician Kuhle had called for this. Photo: Paul Zinken/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa (Photo by Paul Zinken/picture alliance via Getty Images)
investigators and forensic Police work outside the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 29, 2020 after a knife-wielding man kills three people in the church, slitting the throat of at least one of them, in what officials are treating as the latest jihadist attack to rock the country. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
Police block the access to the Notre-Dame de l'Assomption Basilica in Nice on October 29, 2020 after a knife-wielding man kills three people at the church, slitting the throat of at least one of them, in what officials are treating as the latest jihadist attack to rock the country. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
NICE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 29: Police stand in front of Notre-Dame basilica on October 29, 2020 in Nice, France. A man armed with a knife fatally attacked people in the Notre-Dame church in Nice, located in the heart of the city. (Photos by Arnold Jerocki /Getty Images)
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Testimony from witnesses, mobile phone footage, and accounts from officials offered an initial picture of the events leading up to the attack, the attack itself inside the neo-Gothic church, and the immediate aftermath.

The suspected attacker, named by French and Tunisian law enforcement sources as Brahim Aouissaoui, 21, was captured on CCTV arriving at Nice railway station at 6:47am (05:47 GMT).

According to a timeline provided by Ricard, the attacker stayed in the station for 26 minutes, during which he turned his coat inside out, and changed his shoes.

At 08:13, he set off to walk the 400 metres to the Notre Dame church, in a tree-lined square just off Nice's main shopping thoroughfare.

He entered the church at 8:26am, said Ricard, citing evidence from video surveillance, and began his attack, using a 30 centimetre long knife.

When police later examined the scene, they found the attacker had brought two spare knives which he did not use, along with a copy of the Koran, and two telephones.

ALARM RAISED

The first anyone outside the church knew of the attack was at 8:54am when the 44-year-old woman fled from a side entrance of the church into Rue d'Italie, a street lined with cafes and shops. She made it as far as one of the cafes, and the alarm was raised.

At a nearby bakery also next to the church, someone ran in and asked staff to call the police.

"I thought it was a joke, I didn't believe it," said one of the staff in the bakery, who spoke to French broadcaster BFMTV and gave his name as David.

But when the person insisted, David said he walked the short distance to the corner of Rue d'Italie and Avenue Jean Medecin, where last year local authorities installed an intercom in front of the church that connects directly to the municipal police.

David said he pressed the button on the intercom and summoned the police. The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, who had attended last year's unveiling of the intercom, said this was how police were first alerted to the attack.

David said the police arrived on the scene within 30 seconds, while he went back inside his bakery and pulled down the blinds.

SHOUTS OF ALLAHU AKBAR

The first police on the scene were four officers from the Nice municipal force. They entered the church through the entrance on Rue d'Italie, and saw the attacker.

"From the accounts of the police, the man advanced towards them in a threatening manner, shouting 'Allahu Akbar'," said Ricard. The term is Arabic for God is Greatest. The officers fired Tasers, then used service side-arms. Fourteen spent bullet cases were found at the scene.

In video footage obtained by Reuters, shot from a balcony across the street from the church, police officers with guns and Tasers raised could be seen in the side entrance of the church, looking inside. Gunshots could be heard. It was not clear from the footage what they were shooting at.

Footage from the same balcony vantage point later showed a man with dark hair on an ambulance gurney being wheeled away from the church and into a waiting ambulance. Police with guns surrounded the man on the stretcher, who was motionless.

A witness who observed the scene said the man on the gurney was the knife attacker, but Reuters was unable to independently verify that.

Earlier, witnesses said they heard gunfire coming from the street outside the church, and said they believed police were shooting at someone running away from the church, but this was not borne out by the prosecutor's account.

Outside the church, parishioners sought news about the victims.

Michele Malé, one of the parishioners, broke down in tears. "We just found out on TV that our sexton was assassinated," she told reporters. "We're in shock."

A local member of parliament named the sexton as Vincent Loques. The names of the other victims have not been released.

The sexton -- a lay member of staff responsible for the upkeep of the church -- had two children, said Gil Florini, a Catholic priest in Nice.

"He did his job as a sexton very well. He was a very kind person," said Florini.

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