French investigators are interrogating a knife-wielding man who attacked three soldiers outside a Jewish centre in Nice, as questions resurfaced over security measures a month after the Paris attacks.
The attacker, identified as 30-year-old Moussa Coulibaly from the poor western suburbs of Paris, was already known to police who questioned him just days before the attack, when he was expelled from Turkey last week.
Police arrested him immediately after he knifed the soldiers in broad daylight while they were patrolling outside the centre – part of reinforced security measures introduced after last month’s jihadist attacks in Paris that left 17 people dead.
Two of the troops received knife wounds and a third managed to tackle the assailant to the ground.
“This attempted murder targeted soldiers because they were soldiers,” Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said during a visit to the victims’ barracks on Wednesday.
Anti-terrorist police were focusing their investigation on whether Coulibaly had known the soldiers were protecting a Jewish centre, tucked away in a courtyard in the French Riviera city, and what his motives were.
They were also questioning his mother, sister and brother who were taken in after police searched his home in the poor suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie.
Since returning from France after his expulsion from Turkey on January 29, Coulibaly was staying at a hotel near Nice station, where investigators found a handwritten document on religion and Turkish currency.
The knifeman has not been linked to Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman and four Jewish shoppers in a kosher supermarket during the Paris attacks last month before being shot dead by police.
The surname is extremely common in west Africa.
The knifeman Coulibaly had already been fined and given suspended jail sentences in France for offences including robbery and drug use.
He was picked up and questioned in mid-December after “aggressively” trying to spread his beliefs in a gym in Mantes-la-Jolie, a source said.
French intelligence services were then alerted to the fact that he was trying to enter Turkey – a key entry point for jihadists seeking to go to fight in Syria – and asked the country to expel him.
However he was released as there was not enough evidence to charge him.
The attack comes after France beefed up security to unprecedented levels around the country – deploying some 15,000 police and troops to protect sensitive sites in the wake of the Paris attacks.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned of the task facing security forces who have to monitor some 3000 people with links to jihadists or “terrorist networks” in Syria and Iraq.
The three men who carried out the allegedly co-ordinated January 7-9 attacks in Paris, had also been known to police.
France is home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, estimated to be between 500,000 and 600,000, as well as its largest Muslim community, estimated at around five million.