Nice trucker staked out site, sent SMS about ‘weapons’ two days before attack

  • AFP, Nice (France)
  • Updated: Jul 17, 2016 23:51 IST
People pay tributes to victims of the Bastille Day attack in Nice on July 17. Eighty four people were killed as a man drove his truck into crowds watching a fireworks display. (Reuters Photo)

The Nice truck attacker staked out Nice’s seafront for two days before striking, it emerged on Sunday as investigators pieced together details of the Islamic State-claimed massacre and questioned possible accomplices.

A source close to the investigation said that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian, sent a text message just before the attack in which he “expresses satisfaction at having obtained a 7.65mm pistol and discusses the supply of other weapons”.

He also took a selfie at the wheel of the 19-tonne truck in the days before he ploughed it into a crowd of people who had been enjoying a fireworks display on Bastille Day, France’s national day. Eighty four people died that night and about 300 more were injured.

Read | Two new arrests in Nice truck attack as Islamic State’s claim studied

Mangled bodies were left strewn across the riviera city’s seafront in the grisly attack by a man described by those who knew him as a loner with a history of violence and depression.

While some relatives and friends described the delivery driver as someone who drank heavily and never attended the local mosque, others questioned by investigators spoke of “a recent shift to radical Islam”, said a police source.

But there has been no evidence yet linking him to the Islamic State (IS) group, which on Saturday claimed the attack.

An Albanian suspected of providing the driver with the pistol was arrested in Nice on Sunday. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had fired at police who sprayed his rampaging truck with gunfire, eventually killing him.

Two replica assault rifles and a dummy grenade were also found in the truck, which he rented a few days earlier and used for reconnaissance on two consecutive days.

One of five other people being held over the carnage is a 22-year-old suspected of lending logistical support, said his lawyer Jean-Pascal Padovani.

The lawyer said the pair had only known each other for a few months.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s estranged wife, the mother of his three children, was released Sunday after two days of questioning.

Slow identification of victims

In Nice, many people were still desperately waiting for news of their loved ones.

Prosecutors said only 35 victims have been officially identified as they take painstaking measures to avoid errors of identification seen during the Paris attacks last November.

“We have no news, neither good nor bad,” said Johanna, a Lithuanian who was looking for her two friends, aged 20.

Read | Nice truck attack: Timeline of terror in France since Charlie Hebdo shootings

At least 10 children were among the dead as well as tourists from the United States, Ukraine, Switzerland, Germany and about 10 people from Russia, a local Russian association said.

Health minister Marisol Touraine said 85 people were still hospitalised, 18 of them in critical condition.

‘Radicalised very quickly’

Despite several brushes with the law for petty crime, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had never appeared on the radar of intelligence services.

Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Saturday said that the attacker “seemed to have been radicalised very quickly, from what his friends and family” told police.

Read | A petty criminal ‘radicalised quickly’? The portrait of Nice attacker Bouhlel

People who went to the same gym as Lahouaiej-Bouhlel — where he took salsa dancing classes and lifted weights — described him as a vain man who “flirted with anything that moved”.

IS said one of its “soldiers” carried out the attack in response to its calls to target countries from the US-led coalition engaged in airstrikes against the group.

Cazeneuve described the massacre as a “a new kind of attack”.

“We are now confronted with individuals open to IS’ message to engage in extremely violent actions without necessarily having been trained or having the weapons to carry out a mass (casualty) attack,” he said.

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