Bastille Day attack hits France on national holiday, 'symbol of liberty'

At least 84 people are dead in Nice, France after a truck zigzagged for more than a mile through a crowded Bastille Day celebration on Thursday, striking pedestrians.

Eric Gaillard/Reuters
Investigators work on the scene near the truck that rammed into dozens of people at a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France.

At least 84 people are dead and some 50 more critically injured in Nice, France after a truck zigzagged for more than a mile through a crowded Bastille Day celebration on Thursday evening, striking pedestrians. 

Police identified the driver, who was shot and killed, as a 31-year-old man named Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel. Mr. Bouhlel had been in trouble for petty crimes in the past, according to the BBC, but was not on a terrorism watch list. Local media reported that his neighbors said he had seemed unstable and unhappy following his divorce. 

No militant group has claimed affiliation with the driver, but officials are treating it as an attack either inspired by the so-called Islamic State or carried out with coordination from the group. In a late-night address on Thursday, French president Francois Hollande said that the “terroristic character” of the attack “cannot be denied” and linked it to French military actions in Syria and Iraq.

“It is clear that we must do everything we can to fight against the scourge of terrorism,” he said.

"France was hit on the day of her national holiday, the 14th of July, symbol of liberty, because the rights of man are denied by fanatics and France is inevitably their target."

"Nothing will lead us to give in, to give up our fight against terrorism. We will continue to reinforce our actions in Syria and Iraq," Hollande said. "We will continue to strike those who are attacking us on our own soil."

Under Hollande’s leadership, France has been among the West’s most active countries in ongoing military campaigns in Syria and Iraq, carrying out hundreds of airstrikes against IS targets and delivering the most fervent denunciations of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.

US officials also linked the attack to French military involvement in those two countries. In Moscow, where secretary of state John Kerry was beginning talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov over details of a proposed military collaboration in Syria, Kerry emphasized how much of that country had become a hotbed for terrorist groups, referring to the “incredible carnage” of the events in Nice.

“I think people all over the world are looking to us and waiting for us to find a faster and more tangible way for them feeling that everything that is possible has been done to end this terrorist scourge and to unite the world in the most comprehensive efforts possible to fight back against their nihilistic and depraved approach to life and death," Kerry said.

President Barack Obama also condemned the attacks in a statement, expressing “solidarity and partnership with France” and offering French officials assistance in their investigations.

"On this Bastille Day, we are reminded of the extraordinary resilience and democratic values that have made France an inspiration to the entire world, and we know that the character of the French Republic will endure long after this devastating and tragic loss of life," he said. 

The crowd in Nice had assembled by the city's scenic waterfront for a fireworks display as part of a celebration of France's national independence day. Some witnesses said they initially believed the driver was drunk and had lost control of the vehicle, ABC News reported.

The attacks came days after the end of soccer's Euro Championship, which were held in France this year. Security was on high alert throughout the games, and many French residents relaxed as the event came to a close. 

But the new attack "shattered the country’s tenuous sense of calm, raising the stakes for a country – and continent – struggling to maintain a steady hand in the face of sustained and low-tech attacks," as The Christian Science Monitor reported early Friday morning:

This is the deadliest European attack since 9/11 outside a major capital, and at a very family oriented event. Because of the target and the choice of weapon, the challenge to European security has grown, as security officials seek to confront threats that have taken myriad forms and shapes.

"People were resting after the Euro [soccer championship], everything went OK, they were thinking, 'We can finally enjoy July 14,'" says Karim Emile Bitar, a senior research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, who was heading to Nice where he has vacationed since he was a child.

"[Nice] is a powerful symbol. It is tourism season, July 14, a city known for cosmopolitanism, where pretty much the entire world goes," he says. "[The terrorists'] communication strategy, and their ruthlessness, makes for an explosive cocktail."

Two Americans on vacation in Nice – Sean Copeland of Lakeway, Texas and his 11-year-old son Brodie – were among those killed, reported NBC News.

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