ANNECY: Two toddlers stabbed by a knifeman in the French mountain town of Annecy were fighting for their lives but stable today, the government said, as well-wishers laid flowers at the playground where the attack occurred.
A shocked nation paid tribute to a modern-day pilgrim on a walking tour of France’s cathedrals who tried to block the assailant during his attack and then gave chase.
Four children – all aged between 22 and 36 months – and two pensioners were wounded during the assault.
Two of the toddlers were in a critical condition but stable, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said.
President Emmanuel Macron, who called the attack an “act of absolute cowardice”, visited the hospital in the nearby city of Grenoble where three of the four are being cared for and met their families, the Elysee Palace said.
Among the children wounded in the attack were a British national and a Dutch national.
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 tried to fend him off.
France hailed the bravery of a young Catholic pilgrim who came face-to-face with the assailant and used his backpack as a shield as he sought to block the attack.
French media dubbed the 24-year-old “the backpack hero”.
The management and philosophy student has identified himself only as Henri.
“All I know is I was not there by chance,” he told the CNews television network.
“It was unthinkable to do nothing … I followed my instincts and did what I could to protect the weak.”
His Facebook and Instagram accounts were flooded with messages giving thanks for his bravery.
“May God bless you … you did what you could at that moment, you did not give up, you did not run. You are an angel,” Instagram user Mag Capone wrote on his site.
A Mass will be held in Annecy Cathedral in tribute to the victims and their families later today, church authorities said.
Annecy prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis said in a tweet she was extending the suspect’s custody for further interrogation.
She has said there was no indication that terrorism was the motivation and that the suspect was under investigation for attempted murder.
Police have arrested a 31-year old Syrian national who was granted asylum in Sweden 10 years ago, Borne said today.
He had entered France legally, she said, and was carrying Swedish identity documents and a Swedish driving licence.
Sweden and France are both members of the Schengen Area, the world’s largest passport-free zone which allows the unrestricted movement of people between 26 European countries.
The attack has laid bare the tensions between Europe’s free movement rights and the pressure governments in countries like France and Italy are coming under from voters to toughen immigration laws as societies shift rightwards politically.
French interior minister Gerald Darmanin said late yesterday that the suspect had no police record in France, was homeless and had been questioned by police on Sunday as he was washing himself in the Annecy lake.
It was “a troubling coincidence” that just four days before the attack the assailant’s demand for asylum in France had been rejected, the minister said.
One of the two pensioners caught up in the attack told Reuters he had been sitting on a park bench when the attacker approached on the run.
“He probably wanted to create one more victim,” said Youssouf, who asked to withhold his family name.