NICE, France: French investigators arrested two more people Sunday as they pieced together details about the motives and planning of the Tunisian who rammed a truck into a crowd in an IS-claimed attack that killed 84.
Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel staked out the Nice promenade with his rented truck twice in the two days before he smashed the vehicle into a crowd of people watching Bastille Day fireworks on Thursday night, according to a source close to the probe.
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 tendencies towards violence and depression.
While some family and friends have described the 31-year-old as someone who smoked, drank and never attended the local mosque, others questioned indicated “a recent shift to radical Islam”, said a police source.
However there has been no evidence yet linking him to the Islamic State group, which on Saturday claimed the attack.
In Nice, many people were still desperately waiting for news of their loved ones among the dead.
Prosecutors said only 35 victims have been officially identified as they take painstaking measures to avoid errors of identification seen during the November Paris attacks.
“We have no news, neither good nor bad,” said Johanna, a Lithuanian who was looking for her two friends, aged 20.
At least 10 children were among the dead as well as tourists from the United States, Ukraine, Switzerland Germany and about 10 from Russia, a local Russian association said.
Health Minister Marisol Touraine said that 85 people were still hospitalized, 18 people of them in critical condition.
On the second day of national mourning, the Russian Orthodox Church in Nice held an emotional mass for the victims. Another service was planned later at Paris’s iconic Notre-Dame cathedral.
An Albanian couple in Nice were arrested Sunday over the attack and were being held alongside four others. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s estranged wife was released after two days of questioning.
One of those held is a 22-year-old suspected of lending logistical support to Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, said his lawyer Jean-Pascal Padovani.
He said the two had only known each other for a few months and that there was “no material evidence” against his client.
‘Radicalized very quickly’
Despite several brushes with the law for petty crime, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had never appeared on the radar of intelligence services for links to radical Islam.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Saturday the father-of-three, who had been living in Nice for years, “seemed to have been radicalized very quickly, from what his friends and family” told police.
People who went to the same gym as Lahouaiej-Bouhlel — where he did salsa dancing and lifted weights — described him as a “conceited” man who “would flirt with anything that moved.”
The Islamic State group said one of its “soldiers” carried out the attack “in response to calls to target nations of coalition states that are fighting (IS).”
Cazeneuve described the massacre as a “a new kind of attack” which highlighted “the extreme difficulty of the anti-terrorism fight.”
“We are now confronted with individuals open to IS’s 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.
Patriots called to volunteer
France’s third major attack in the past 18 months has left Paris fending off criticism over security failures and scrambling to reassure its citizens they are protected.
Cazeneuve called for volunteers to boost security forces who have already been reinforced and are on high alert under an eight-month-old state of emergency.
“I want to call on all French patriots who wish to do so, to join this operational reserve,” said Cazeneuve of a force currently made up of 12,000 volunteers aged between 17 and 30.
The latest attack comes after a French parliamentary inquiry last week criticised numerous failings by the intelligence services after jihadist assaults in January and November last year.
France is a prime target of IS, due to its role in fighting the group in Iraq and Syria, its cherished secular values, and what the government has admitted is a “social and ethnic apartheid” that alienates its large Muslim community.
Hundreds of French jihadists have already gone to fight alongside IS in Iraq and Syria.
Those inspired by IS from afar, with no links to jihadist networks, create a massive headache for intelligence services.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian noted that IS had recently repeated calls for supporters to “directly attack the French, Americans, wherever they are and by whatever means”.
“Even when Daesh is not the organiser, Daesh breathes life into the terrorist spirit that we are fighting,” he said, using an Arabic name for IS. AFP