French police identify Nice truck attacker, neighbours describe him a loner

  • Agencies, Nice / Tunis
  • Updated: Jul 15, 2016 23:55 IST
French investigating police conduct a search of inside a truck, the day after a heavy a truck ran into a crowd at high speed killing scores and injuring more who were celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday, in Nice, France, July 15, 2016. (REUTERS)

The 31-year-old driver of a truck who killed scores of people on the Nice seafront was a Tunisian petty criminal described by neighbours as an unfriendly loner who showed no outward sign of being a devout Muslim.

Investigators were on Friday piecing together a picture of the father-of-three who slammed into crowds who had been watching a Bastille Day fireworks display, killing 84 people including 10 children and adolescents.

Anti-terrorism prosecutor Francois Molins identified him as Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, “a delivery man, of Tunisian nationality, married and with children” adding that he had a criminal record but no known terrorist connection.

His identity papers and a bank card were found in the truck and his identity had been confirmed by fingerprints, he said.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was shot dead by police at the wheel of the 19-tonne lorry.

Read | Truck attacker ploughs into French crowd, kills 84 revellers in Nice

As forensic scientists, backed by armed police, searched his apartment in a four-storey block in a working-class neighbourhood of Nice, neighbours told AFP they had little to do with him.

They portrayed him as a solitary figure who rarely spoke and did not even return greetings when their paths crossed.

Sebastien, a neighbour who spoke on condition that his full name was not used, said Lahouaiej-Bouhlel did not seem overtly religious and often dressed in shorts.

Only one neighbour said she had had any concerns about him, describing him as “a good-looking man who kept giving my two daughters the eye”.

Never attended mosque’

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was often seen drinking beer and never attended the small mosque near his home, other residents of his home district told AFP.

“I never saw him at the mosque,” said the caretaker of an apartment building as he sat in a restaurant next to the mosque, who asked not to be named. Three bearded Muslims with him agreed -- they had never seen the man at the mosque either.

Molins said that although Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had never been investigated by the security services, he was known to police.

“He had a police and judicial record for threats, violence, theft and acts of criminal damage between 2010 and 2016, and had been sentenced by the Nice criminal court to a six-month term, suspended, on March 24 2016 for violence with arms, committed in January 2016.

“On the other hand, he was totally unknown to intelligence services, nationally and locally, and was never flagged for signs of radicalisation,” he added.

Read | As it happened: Nice truck attacker identified as French petty criminal

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s wife was brought in for questioning on Friday morning, Molins said.

Neighbours said the couple had three children, including a baby, but were separated.

One resident of the apartment block where the family had lived until 18 months ago before they split up said Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was a violent man who had an extreme reaction to his wife’s request for a divorce.

“His wife had asked for a divorce after a violent argument,” said the man, who also asked not to be identified.

“He defecated everywhere, he cut up his daughter’s teddy bear and slashed the mattress.

“I don’t think there was a radicalisation issue, I think there was psychiatric problem,” he added.

Police investigators and forensic experts entered the apartment where he moved to at around 9:30 am (0730 GMT) with an armed police intervention unit in support, and brought out bags of material later.

Eighty-four people were killed, including 10 children and teenagers, and 202 were injured, 52 of them critically, Molins added.

President Francois Hollande has declared the attack was of “an undeniable terrorist nature.”

Truck attacker was from Tunisian town Msaken

Meanwhile, Tunisian security sources said on Friday that the suspect came from the Tunisian town of Msaken which he last visited four years ago, reports Reuters.

Bouhlel was not known by the Tunisian authorities to hold radical or Islamist views, the sources said.

He was married with three children, they said. The sources did not say when he had last been resident in Tunisia.

Msaken is about 10 km (six miles) outside the coastal city of Sousse.

Tunisia’s consul in Nice said one of the 84 victims of the attack had been identified as Tunisian national Bilal Labawi, and that officials were working to check for other Tunisian nationals among the casualties, state news agency TAP reported.

Read | ‘Absolute chaos’: Screams, flying debris as truck ploughs into Nice crowd

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