By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
ANNECY, France (Reuters) -Four toddlers and two pensioners were stabbed in a knife attack in the tranquil French mountain town of Annecy on Thursday and the government said the suspected assailant was a Syrian refugee.
A video of the attack, taken by a bystander and verified by Reuters, showed the assailant jump a low wall into a children’s playground and repeatedly lunge at a child in a stroller, pushing aside a woman who tries to fend him off.
Two of the wounded children and one adult were in hospital in a life-threatening condition, while the other victims were less seriously hurt.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said the suspected attacker, who was in police custody, was a 31-year old Syrian national who was granted asylum in Sweden 10 years ago. He had entered France legally, she said, and was carrying Swedish identity documents and a Swedish driving licence.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said France had rejected an asylum request made by the suspect earlier this month, and that he had been carrying “certain Christian religious insignia”.
The local prosecutor leading the investigation said there was no indication that terrorism was the assailant’s motivation. The suspect was under investigation for attempted murder.
The four children were just toddlers, aged between 22 months and three years, Annecy prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis told reporters.
One of them was a British national, another was Dutch, Bonnet-Mathis said.
As the assailant, who wore a blue-chequered headscarf and sunglasses, slashed at his victims, one bystander tried to stop him by throwing his backpack at him, the video showed.
Police have not publicly released the suspect’s name.
A woman identified as his ex-wife told BFM TV that her former partner was a Christian.
“He does not call me for four months. (Our relationship) stopped because we lived in Sweden and he did not want to live in Sweden anymore,” she told BFM TV, adding that he had not previously shown a violent streak.
French news agency AFP reported the assailant was carrying a prayer book on his person when he launched his attack.
The incident took place at around 0745 GMT in Le Paquier park in Annecy, a town in the French Alps.
“He clearly targeted the babies,” a witness who gave his name as Ferdinand told BFM TV.
President Emmanuel Macron said his country was in shock, calling the attack “an act of absolute cowardice”.
Swedish court documents seen by Reuters showed the suspect – whose name Reuters confirmed with police – was fined for fraud in Sweden in 2022 for claiming unemployment and student benefits at the same time.
The ruling said that he had struggled financially and at one point had to sell his wife’s jewellery to make ends meet.
The attack ended when police shot at the attacker and then overpowered him, an eyewitness video verified by Reuters showed.
He was not injured, the prosecutor said.
Several witnesses described Le Paquier park as an usually tranquil place popular with tourists for its stunning views of Lake Annecy and the mountains.
“It’s a place where babysitters and parents take young children to play. I often see around 15 toddlers there in the morning, and the atmosphere is fantastic,” said Yohan, who works at an ice-cream parlour just opposite the park.
France has been shocked by a number of violent incidents over the past few months, including the fatal stabbing last month of a nurse in the northern town of Reims.
Macron has denounced what he calls a “de-civilisation process” in the country, while opposition lawmakers say his government has been too lax on law and order.
“Nothing more abominable than to attack children,” National Assembly speaker Yael Braun-Pivet said on Twitter. Parliament observed a minute of silence to mark the incident.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Annecy and Benoit Van Overstraeten, Geert De Clercq, Juliette Jabkhiro, Layli Foroudi, Nicolas Misculin, Bertrand Boucey and Michel Rose in ParisWriting by Geert De Clercq, Silvia Aloisi and Richard LoughEditing by Toby Chopra, Frances Kerry and Andrew Heavens)