French investigators scrambled Sunday to identify a knifeman who killed one person and wounded four others in a suspected terror attack that brought panic once more to the streets of Paris.
An assailant shouting “Allahu akbar” was shot dead by police in central Paris late Saturday, minutes after he attacked people near the city’s main opera house — an area full of bars, restaurants and theatres which were brimming on a weekend night.
Witnesses described scenes of panic as Parisians realised another potential terror attack was underway in a country already reeling from a string of jihadist assaults in the last three years that have killed more than 245 people.
“I was taking orders and I saw a young woman trying to get into the restaurant in panic,” Jonathan, a waiter at a Korean restaurant, told AFP. The woman was bleeding and the attacker appeared behind her. He said a young man tried to fend off the assailant who then fled.
“The attacker entered a shopping street, I saw him with a knife in his hand,” he said. “He looked crazy.”
Milan, 19, said he saw “several people in distress” including a woman with wounds to her neck and leg.
“Firemen were giving her first aid. I heard two, three shots and a policeman told me that the man had been overpowered.”
In a tweet French President Emmanuel Macron said: “France once again pays the price of blood.”
Authorities cited witnesses as saying the man shouted “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) as he went on the rampage, killing a 29-year-old man, adding that a terror investigation had been launched.
The assailant had no identifying documents on him. A source with knowledge of the case told AFP he was a young man with brown hair and a beard who was dressed in black tracksuit trousers.
– Wounded out of danger –
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility, according to the SITE monitoring group, but provided no corroborating proof to back their assertion.
“The executor of the stabbing operation in the city of Paris is a soldier of the Islamic State and the operation was carried out in response to the calls to target the coalition states,” a “security source” told IS’s official Amaq news agency, according to SITE.
Two of those wounded were rushed to hospital in a serious condition but Interior Minister Gerard Collomb later told reporters all the victims were out of danger and would survive their injuries.
“I have just seen the person who was most seriously injured, she is better, she is saved,” he said. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said police were on the scene “within five minutes” of the attack and that some nine minutes later the assailant was dead, he added. “The speed of the response obviously avoided a heavier toll,” he said.
A police source told AFP one officer tried to restrain the attacker with a taser but when that failed a colleague shot the man dead.
– Scenes of panic –
The attack took place on Rue Monsigny in the second arrondissement, an area that lies between the main opera house and the Louvre museum, two major tourist attractions. A large area was cordoned off where police, fire and rescue vehicles converged.
Shocked tourists and residents looked on from behind the security perimeter. “I was on the cafe terrace, I heard three, four shots, it happened very fast,” said 47-year-old Gloria.
“The bartenders told us to come inside very quickly. Then I went out to see what was going on, and then I saw a man on the ground,” she added. One witness, who gave her first name Maxine, said panic spread as word got out that an attack was taking place. “We saw someone coming out of a building who said he saw the assailant slaughter someone, so people took refuge in the bar,” she said.
France has suffered a series of major Islamist attacks including the massacre at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the November 2015 attacks that killed 130 in Paris, and the 2016 Bastille Day truck attack in Nice that killed more than 80.
There have also been a string of less deadly but frequent attacks by lone wolf jihadists wielding knives or guns. Most of the attacks have either been claimed by the Islamic State group or been carried out in their name.
A state of emergency put in place just after the 2015 Paris attacks was lifted in October when Macron’s centrist government passed a new law boosting the powers of security forces.
Thousands of French troops remain on the streets under an anti-terror operation known as Sentinelle, patrolling transport hubs, tourist hotspots and other sensitive sites.