The sexton at Nice’s Notre Dame church who had his throat slit by a Tunisian man armed with a knife on Thursday morning has been identified as Vincent Loques.
Mr Loques, 55, had opened the doors of the church at around 8:30am on the morning of the incident ahead of that day’s mass, but was killed moments later along with a 60-year-old woman, who was beheaded, and a 44-year-old who was left badly wounded by the assault, according to prosecutors.
While the church officer and the elderly woman died immediately at the scene, the third victim made it across the street to a nearby cafe where she died of her wounds, France’s chief anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard said.
The three were killed “only because they were in the church at that moment,” Mr Ricard told reporters, adding that the authorities were looking into whether the attacker had any accomplices.
Named by French and Tunisian law enforcement sources as 21-year-old Brahim Aouissaoui, the assailant was shot by police officers who detained him, and is being treated in hospital.
An investigation has been opened for alleged murder and attempted murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise.
A timeline presented by prosecutors said he arrived at Nice’s railway station at 6:47am, remaining in the building for half an hour while turning his coat inside out and changing his shoes before moving on to the church.
Along with the 30cm knife he used to conduct his attack, police said Aouissaoui had been in possession of two more blades, a copy of the Koran and two telephones.
The attack in the Mediterranean city is the third in less than two months that French authorities have said had been conducted by religious extremists, including the beheading of a teacher in Paris two weeks prior.
The instances of brutal violence come amid a fierce debate in France and beyond over the re-publication of depictions of the prophet Muhammad by satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
The newspaper ran the images of the religious figure on its front page alongside the headline “all of this, just for that” at the beginning of September as the trial opened for the 2015 attacks at the paper’s offices.
The French government has fiercely defended the newspaper’s right to publish and show the images, which have prompted protests in several countries and calls for a boycott of French goods.
In the wake of the most recent attack President Emmanuel Macron said he would immediately increase the number of soldiers deployed to protect schools and religious sites from around 3,000 to 7,000.
Speaking outside the church, he said France had been attacked “over our values, for our taste for freedom, for the ability on our soil to have freedom of belief … And I say it with great clarity again today: We will not give any ground.”