A French-Tunisian criminal well known to the police for armed attacks used a hired lorry to kill at least 84 people in a terrorist attack during Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, it emerged on Friday.
Many children were among the death toll in the Riviera city following a “cowardly and barbaric” atrocity.
As hundreds remained in hospital, including 18 in intensive care, anti-terrorist judges opened an investigation into ‘mass murder’.
Sources close to the enquiry said the perpetrator was a local 30-year-old career criminal who was born in Tunisia before moving to France.
His 19 tonne lorry had zigzagged through crowds massing on the Promenade des Anglais on Thursday night, killing anyone he could.
After being stopped by armed police, who fired bullets into the lorry’s windscreen, the so far unnamed man exchanged fire with officers using a 7.65pistol, before being shot dead.
“He was known to the police for violence, and using weapons, but had no direct links with terrorism,” said an investigating source. “His identity car was found in the lorry. He had French and Tunisian nationality.”
A search of the vehicle uncovered a pistol, a larger gun, and a number of fake weapons and grenades.
The fact that the killer was known to the authorities will be of grave concern to those trying to prevent terrorist attacks in France.
A recent Paris parliamentary investigation into last year’s attacks identified multiple failings by France’s intelligence agencies.
As the United Nations issued a statement calling the latest “cowardly and barbaric”, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls tweeted: “The city of Nice has been hit by terrorism on the day of our national holiday. Immense pain, the country is in mourning. The French will face it.”
President Francois Hollande meanwhile spoke of a “monstrosity”, and said soldiers would be deployed to support gendarmes and police, particularly at the country’s borders.
A State of Emergency imposed last year after almost 150 people were killed during attacks on Paris would be extended to July 26th, Mr Hollande added.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve meanwhile said: “We are at war with terrorists who want to strike us at any cost and who are extremely violent.”
Tony Molina, an American witness to the attack, told CNN: “There was still a crowd of people and then you just see this big white panel truck, I couldn’t see the driver, but it just kept going at different angles from left to right at 25 to 30 miles and hour.
“People were screaming and running. I work in homicide and I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s unbelievable.”
The Promenade Anglais was packed on what is traditionally the biggest public holiday in France, when the man struck soon after 10.45am.
The white lorry mounted the pavement repeatedly at approximately 40mph and steered directly towards men, women, and children, some of whom were still dressed for the beach.
Locals were advised to stay indoors as soldiers and anti-terrorist police flooded the area.
The National Gendarmeris tweeted: “Emergency operation in progress. Keep calm and avoid city centre. Follow official social media accounts for information.”
British holidaymaker Esther Serwah, 59, was staying in a hotel a short walk from the scene.
She said she had been on her way to the Promenade des Anglais for dinner with her daughters when people started screaming at her.
Mrs Serwah, from Surrey, said: “I was just walking to the Promenade and then I saw everybody running and I just didn’t know what was going on. People were screaming at me in French but I didn’t understand.
“Some people were lying on the streets dead and people were running over the bodies. Everybody was saying it’s a terrorist attack. It’s just horrible, horrible, horrible. I’m in shock. I’m still shaking.”
Bastille Day, which celebrates the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris during the French Revolution of 1789, is the country’s biggest public holiday.