Truck driver aimed for children: witnesses
NICE, FRANCE — France called up thousands of reserve security forces Friday as authorities tried to determine why a Tunisian deliveryman known only to be a petty criminal took the wheel of a 19-ton truck and plunged through a terrified seaside crowd on Bastille Day, leaving 84 people dead and more than 200 wounded.
Witnesses described how Mohamed Bouhlel barrelled his truck in a zigzag path down a crowded Nice promenade, aiming directly for children, for mothers pushing strollers and for families cowering behind plastic benches.
President François Hollande extended a national state of emergency that stretched back to the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and was claimed by the Islamic State group.
The state of emergency had been due to be scaled back but instead was extended another three months. The government tapped its operational reserve of 25,000 — composed mainly of ex-military or former gendarmes — to relieve its tired officers, stretched by month after month of state-of-emergency policing.
Hollande said the attack was “undeniably terrorist in nature,” but prosecutors said the 31-year-old driver who lived in Nice wasn’t known to intelligence services.
No group claimed responsibility for Thursday night’s slaughter of tourists and locals packing the upscale seafront, where an estimated 30,000 had just watched a Bastille Day fireworks show.
They fanned out to enjoy nighttime street artists, arcade games and food stalls or strolls back to their hotels beside the gentle Mediterranean tide. Then Bouhlel drove his truck into the sidewalk and turned a celebration into a terrifying dash for survival.
Cyril Croisy said he saw the truck accelerate into the first crowds outside Nice’s landmark Negresco Hotel, aiming straight for a stand selling candy to children.
He said he tried to help the wounded, including a woman with catastrophic injuries.
“I was there when her heart stopped,” said Croisy, his eyes welling with tears as he spoke. The 40year-old Parisian suffered a broken arm while fleeing the scene and jumping from the pedestrian promenade to the beach below.
Among the dead were immigrants and tourists from many countries, including Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland and the United States.
French prosecutor François Molins said Bouhlel had a loaded handgun, three replica weapons and an empty grenade in the truck, which he had rented three days earlier. Police considered him a petty criminal suspected since 2010 of various threats and acts of theft, vandalism and violent conduct, he said.
In March, he was convicted for a road-rage crime when he struck another motorist with a wooden pallet but received a suspended sixmonth sentence because it was his first proven offence.
Molins said Bouhlel was “totally unknown to intelligence services ... and was never placed on a watch list for radicalization.”
A man reacts as people leave tributes to the victims of a terror attack in Nice, France, that killed at least 84 people.