One of two attackers who stormed a small-town church in France and killed a priest was under house arrest and awaiting trial on terror charges, officials said on Wednesday, as the nation struggled to come to terms with the third major attack in 18 months.
Adel Kermiche, 19, was one of two attackers who stormed a Catholic church in the northern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray during morning mass, slitting the throat of an 86-year-old priest, Jacques Hamel, and leaving a worshipper with serious injuries, said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.
The attack, claimed by the Islamic State group, comes with France still in mourning less than two weeks after Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed a truck into a crowd in the Riviera city of Nice, killing 84 people and injuring over 300.
The carnage, the third major strike on France in 18 months, prompted a bitter political spat over alleged security failings and revelations over the church attack were likely to raise further questions.
Molins said that Kermiche first came to the attention of anti-terror officials when a member of his family alerted him as missing in March 2015. He was arrested by German officials and found to be using his brother’s identity in a bid to reach Syria.
He was charged and released under judicial supervision, but in May fled to Turkey where he was again arrested and returned to France where he was held in custody until March 2016.
Kermiche was released and fitted with an electronic bracelet which allowed him to leave his house on weekdays between 8:00 am and 12:30 pm, said Molins.
It was during this time that he and another attacker entered the centuries-old stone Saint-Etienne church, taking hostage the priest, Hamel, three nuns and two worshippers.
Tuesday’s attack prompted renewed opposition calls to further harden France’s anti-terrorism legislation.
But Socialist President Francois Hollande -- who faces a tough re-election bid next year -- rejected them, saying: “Restricting our freedoms will not make the fight against terrorism more effective.”
Changes made to legislation in 2015, and the extension of a state of emergency in the wake of the Nice attack, already gave authorities sufficient “capacity to act,” he said.
But the deputy chief of France’s police union, Frederic Lagache, said: “It should not be possible for someone awaiting trial on charges of having links to terrorism to be released” on house arrest.
Mohammed Karabila, who heads the regional council of Muslim worship for Haute Normandie, where the church attack took place, asked simply: “How could a person wearing an electronic bracelet carry out an attack? Where are the police?”
Kermiche and another assailant entered the centuries-old stone church of Saint Etienne, taking hostage the priest, Jacques Hamel, three nuns and two worshippers.
One of the nuns managed to escape and call police, who tried to negotiate with the hostage-takers.
The nun, Sister Danielle, told local radio RMC that the men were speaking Arabic and shouting, and had “recorded” the attack.
Three hostages were lined up in front of the church door, meaning police could not launch an attack, said Molins.
Two nuns and one worshipper exited the church followed by the two attackers, one carrying a handgun, who charged at police shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest). Police gunned down the jihadists.
Joanna Torrent, a 22-year-old store employee, was stunned to see terror hit her small working-class town of 30,000 people, far from bustling tourist hubs like Paris and Nice.
“I thought it would only be in big cities, that it couldn’t reach here,” she said.