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Nice attacker plotted for months; suspected accomplices in custody

  • NADER EL SHAFEI VIA AP

    Police shine a light into the cab as they approach the driver’s cab of a truck, in Nice, France on July 14. A large truck plowed through revelers gathered for Bastille Day fireworks in Nice, killing at least 84 people and sending others fleeing into the sea as it bore down for more than a mile along the Riviera city’s famed waterfront promenade. The driver was killed by police and no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

PARIS » The 31-year-old man who drove a delivery truck more than a mile down Nice’s seaside promenade, killing 84 people celebrating Bastille Day, had envisaged such a terrorist attack for months before getting behind the wheel, a French prosecutor said today.

Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel also had accomplices, prosecutor Francois Molins added, saying that he sought charges against five people in custody, some of whom exchanged messages in the days, weeks and months before the attack.

The latest information on the investigation into the attack counters previous suspicions that Lahouaiej Bouhlel was very rapidly radicalized, as messages and photographs found on his phone and computer showed an interest in jihadism as far back as early 2015.

Molins said he was seeking charges against four men and one woman, three of whom were of Tunisian or joint French-Tunisian nationality and two holding Albanian nationality. The charges sought included association with terrorist networks and complicity in a criminal attack related to terrorism.

None of the five were known to French intelligence services prior to the attack, Molins said. Lahouaiej Bouhlel was also not known to intelligence services.

Among the data uncovered by the investigation, Molins said that Lahouaiej Bouhlel had exchanged more than 1,200 calls with one of the men held — named as Mohamed Oualid G. — since July 2015. Mohamed Oualid G. had sent Lahouaiej Bouhlel a message after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 celebrating the shootings and saying the “soldiers of allah finished their work.”

Images taken from Mohamed Oualid G.’s phone also show him filming the Nice promenade after the attack, as well as filming himself, Molins said. Photographs taken by Lahouaiej Bouhlel on July 11 and 13 also show Mohamed Oualid G. in the truck that was used to mow down the crowd on July 14, Molins said.

Another of the five’s prints were found on the interior of the truck, Molins said. Lahouaiej Bouhlel sent three text messages in the moments preceding the attack, including a message to another one of the people held congratulating him for procuring a weapon.

After plowing down the promenade, Lahouaiej Bouhlel shot multiple times at three police officers, who followed the truck as it continued for another thousand feet. After he was shot dead by police, two automatic pistols, a magazine, cartridges, two fake Kalashnikovs, and a non-functional grenade were found in the cab.

While the investigation is still piecing together the disparate pieces of the picture, no clear link has yet been established between Lahouaiej Bouhlel and the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for the attack two days after it occurred.

Molins said that 15 people remain in critical condition, of the 330 people hospitalized after the attack. Many of those gathered on the seaside promenade to watch the fireworks show and who were killed by the onslaught came from abroad, including visitors from the U.S. and Italy.

The attack in Nice — the third major terrorist act on French soil in less than two years — has created schisms in the country’s political class, with conservative and far-right politicians accusing the Socialist government of not having done enough to secure the nation against the threat posed by terrorism.

After the newspaper Liberation raised questions about the extent of security, how many police and what level of police were present on the promenade, the French Interior Ministry Thursday opened a “technical inquiry” to try to head off speculation.

The inquiry — to be headed by the police oversight body — was announced Thursday by Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve after mounting criticism of the measures taken to ensure the celebrations were secure.

Liberation claimed that only two municipal police officers and one police car were present on the entrance to the seaside walk where crowds were gathered for the fireworks show, saying that their findings were contrary to previous statements made by Cazeneuve.

Two days after the attack, Cazeneuve said that the “national police were present, and very present, on the Promenade des Anglais” and added that police vehicles blocked access to the promenade.

Speaking from Ireland, French President Francois Hollande said the inquiry was to seek answers about whether security plans were sufficient, but called for calm. “There is no place for polemics, there is only place for truth and transparency,” he said.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the government “has nothing to hide” and added that, “in this moment we are in need of unity.”

France’s parliament extended the country’s state of emergency for the fourth time on Thursday, expanding police powers to conduct searches and detain suspects for another six months.

The measures, enacted after terrorist attacks around Paris last November that targeted in part a national stadium and concert hall and left 130 people dead, have been criticized by human rights groups.

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©2016 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany)

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