Two hostage-takers said to be loyal to "Islamic State" have murdered a priest by slitting his throat inside a church in France before they were shot dead by police. Prosecutors say one suspect had an electronic tag.
French President Francois Hollande visited the scene of Tuesday's murder during morning mass at Rouvray, near Rouen in Normandy, describing it as a "vile terrorist attack" that adds to a string of deadly jihadist assaults in France since last year.
A nun, identified as Sister Danielle, told RMC radio and BFM television that the assailants forced 85-year-old parish priest Father Jacques Hamel to his knees before slitting his throat.
"They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It's a horror," she said.
French media said one of the two attackers equipped with knives was a local man and had spent a year in French jail after trying to travel to Syria via Turkey.
French anti-terror prosecutor Francois Molins identified him as 19-year-old Adel Kermiche, who had been fitted with electronic surveillance since March.
IS claims linkage
Responsibility for the attack - the first jihadist attack on a church on French soil by the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) - was claimed via Amaq, the mouthpiece agency of Islamic State, which in recent years has become notorious for its brutality in Syria and Iraq.
A special French police unit confronted the attackers as they left the church, shooting them dead and freeing three hostages, physically unharmed.
Inter-faith meeting on Wednesday
Hollande said he was calling a meeting on Wednesday of representatives of all religions in France. "We must lead this war with all our means," he added.
Mohammed Karabila, regional Muslim leader, denounced the Rouvray attack as an "odious act" and said that one of the attackers had been known to police.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Pope Francis condemned "every form of hatred" and expressed his "pain and horror for this absurd violence."
From Krakow in Poland, Rouen's Catholic archbishop, Dominique Lebrun, said he urged all, including non-believers, to unite in an outcry.
"The Catholic Church has no other arms besides prayer and fraternity between men," he said.
Rouvray's mayor, Hubert Wulfranc, tearfully denounced what he called "barbarism" and gave a deeply emotional plea: "Let us together be the last to cry."
France on high alert
France has remained on high alert under an extended state of emergency since a truck driven by a Tunisian resident killed 84 revelers along the promenade of France's southern Mediterranean city of Nice on July 14, Bastille Day.
Although IS claimed responsibility for that attack, police have not confirmed linkage.
Previous jihadist assaults last year in Paris took 147 lives.
Catholics in constitutionally secular France make up the majority of France's population. Islam ranks as France's second-largest religion, with five million followers.
'Be merciless,' says Sarkozy
Presumptive French conservative presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy reacted to Tuesday's killing by accusing Hollande's Socialist government of being soft on terrorism.
"We must be merciless," Sarkozy told reporters. "There is no more time to be wasted."
His center-right opposition wants all Islamist suspects identified in confidential security assessments placed under administrative detention.
Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is also expected to run for the presidency in 10 months' time, said both major parties had failed on security.
Hollande insisted the state must stick to the rule of law as a hallmark of democracy.
ipj/kl (Reuters, AFP, AP)