A terrorist who used a hired lorry to kill at least 84 people in a rampage during Bastille Day celebrations in Nice has been named as a convicted criminal well known to the police for armed attacks.
Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel – described as a “weird loner” who “became depressed” when his wife left him – was a French passport holder who lived in the Riviera city and was regularly in trouble with the law.
The 31-year-old delivery driver’s wife is this afternoon in police custody as officers question her about his alleged Islamist links. Bouhlel was reportedly not on a terrorist watch list and investigators are seeking to establish his motives – and are also looking for possible accomplices.
At least 10 children are among the dead following the “cowardly and barbaric” atrocity that left several British national among the many injured.
Officials feared the death toll will rise, as dramatic footage emerged of the mass killer being shot dead by police in the cab of his truck after unleashing carnage on the 30,000-strong crowd.
As hundreds remained in hospital – including 50 fighting for their lives in intensive care – investigators have been searching the home of Bouhlel in the Abattoirs area of Nice and carried out a controlled explosion on a white box van nearby.
Investigating sources said Bouhlel’s last appearance in a criminal court was as recently as March, when he was found guilty of violent contact. Despite this, he had no known links with terrorism and was not under surveillance.
An investigating source said: “An operation is currently underway at the dead suspect’s home in Nice. It is being raided by officers.”
Neighbours described him as a “very weird loner” and father of three who had recently become estranged from his wife and had become depressed following the breakdown of his marriage.
A woman living in the same shabby apartment block as Bouhel today told how he “seemed very weird”. She told The Telegraph: “He lived alone. He said very little to anyone and wasn’t very polite. He wouldn’t hold the door open for you.”
Bouhel left his French identity card in the hired 19-tonne lorry used to murder dozens of people on Thursday night.
After being stopped by armed police, who fired bullets into the lorry’s windscreen, the so far unnamed man exchanged fire with officers using a 7.65 pistol, before being shot dead.
“He was known to the police for violence, and using weapons, but had no direct links with terrorism,” said an investigating source. “His identity car was found in the lorry. He had French and Tunisian nationality.”
A search of the vehicle uncovered a pistol, a larger gun, and a number of fake weapons and grenades.
The fact that the killer was known to the authorities will be of grave concern to those trying to prevent terrorist attacks in France.
A recent Paris parliamentary investigation into last year’s attacks identified multiple failings by France’s intelligence agencies.
New Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain must redouble its efforts to defeat “brutal” terrorist “murderers” after the “horrifying” attack, as she called a meeting of senior officials in the Government’s emergency Cobra committee.
As the United Nations issued a statement calling the latest “cowardly and barbaric”, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls tweeted: “The city of Nice has been hit by terrorism on the day of our national holiday. Immense pain, the country is in mourning. The French will face it.”
President Francois Hollande meanwhile spoke of a “monstrosity”, and said soldiers would be deployed to support gendarmes and police, particularly at the country’s borders.
A State of Emergency imposed last year after almost 150 people were killed during attacks on Paris will be extended to July 26, Mr Hollande added.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said: “We are at war with terrorists who want to strike us at any cost and who are extremely violent.”
Tony Molina, an American witness to the attack, said: “There was still a crowd of people and then you just see this big white panel truck, I couldn’t see the driver, but it just kept going at different angles from left to right at 25 to 30 miles and hour.
“People were screaming and running. I work in homicide and I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s unbelievable.”
The Promenade Anglais was packed on what is traditionally the biggest public holiday in France, when the man struck soon after 10.30pm local time (21:30 BST)
The white lorry mounted the pavement repeatedly at approximately 40mph and steered directly towards men, women, and children, some of whom were still dressed for the beach.
“People went down like ninepins,” a man who runs Le Queenie restaurant on the seafront told France Info radio.
British holidaymaker Esther Serwah, 59, was staying in a hotel a short walk from the scene. She said she had been on her way to the Promenade des Anglais for dinner with her daughters when people started screaming at her.
Mrs Serwah, from Surrey, said: “I was just walking to the Promenade and then I saw everybody running and I just didn’t know what was going on. People were screaming at me in French but I didn’t understand.
“Some people were lying on the streets dead and people were running over the bodies. Everybody was saying it’s a terrorist attack. It’s just horrible, horrible, horrible. I’m in shock. I’m still shaking.”
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