A driver plowed into a Christmas market in western France on Monday, injuring 10 people before stabbing himself, a day after a similar attack in another French city as authorities played down fears of a terrorist motive.
At least four people were badly hurt, one in critical condition, after the latest incident in the city of Nantes, the third attack in three days by individuals against civilians or security forces in France, sparking fears of possible copycat action.
Authorities were quick to stress there were no apparent terrorist motives in the latest attack, describing the perpetrator as “unbalanced.”
On Sunday, a man shouting “Allahu Akbar” — God is greatest in Arabic — drove into pedestrians on the streets of the eastern city of Dijon, injuring 13. The driver was suffering from a severe psychological disorder, a prosecutor said.
On Saturday, a man was shot dead by police after walking into a police station in the central town of Joue-les-Tours and attacking three officers with a knife. He too had yelled “Allahu Akbar.”
“We cannot speak of a terrorist act,” local prosecutor Brigitte Lamy told reporters at the scene in Nantes, saying that initial evidence pointed instead to an “isolated case.”
French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve, speaking in Nantes, said the attacker appeared to be “unbalanced” and not motivated by politics or religion.
French President Francois Hollande asked the prime minister to convene an emergency Cabinet meeting yesterday to discuss the attacks.
Hollande has urged the French public not to panic, while French Prime Minister Manuel Valls reiterated an appeal for “cool-headedness.”
The latest attack happened in France’s sixth-biggest city at about 7pm as people across the country thronged shops and markets in search of last-minute Christmas presents.
The van driver sped toward a chalet serving mulled wine, where several people had gathered, an eyewitness said.
“I just saw the car charging into the stand, completely ramming into people,” an elderly woman said.
A source close to the investigation said that, after slamming into the shoppers, the driver stabbed himself in the chest “at least nine times,” causing himself serious — but not life-threatening — injuries.
Lamy said the attacker was known to police and had not voiced “any specific demand.”
Investigators were examining a notebook found next to the white van, she said, adding that one of the injured was fighting for their life in hospital.
A source close to the investigation said the driver was 37 years old and was known to police in connection with theft, handling of stolen goods and damaging a vehicle.
The three attacks have jarred nerves in France after repeated threats against the country over its involvement in the fight against militants in Africa and the Middle East.
The man behind Saturday’s attack in Joue-les-Tours, identified as Bertrand Nzohabonayo, was a Burundian convert to Islam. Sunday’s attack in Dijon by a man shouting the same slogan sparked fears of more attacks by individuals possibly responding to calls for violence by the the Islamic State group, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, that has swept through swathes of Syria and Iraq.
Nzohabonayo had posted an Islamic State flag on his Facebook page last week.
A legal resident in France, he was known for petty crime, but was not on a domestic intelligence watch list, although his brother, Brice, who was arrested in Burundi after the attack, is known for his radical views.
Nzohabonayo’s mother had told authorities in August last year that she was worried about Brice’s influence on his brother, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said.
A prosecutor in Dijon said the 40-year-old driver of the car who targeted passers-by at five different locations on Sunday had been to psychiatric hospital 157 times and had no known links to jihadist groups.
She said he told police that he plowed into people due to a sudden “outburst of empathy for the children of Chechnya” and had shouted “Allahu Akbar” to give him courage.
“He was not guided by religion, but because he felt that politically he had to react,” she said.
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