PARIS (AP) — As bystanders screamed for help, a man with a knife stabbed four young children at a lakeside park in the French Alps on Thursday, assaulting at least one in a stroller repeatedly. Authorities said the children, between 22 months and 3 years old, suffered life-threatening injuries, and two adults were also wounded.
The helplessness of the young victims and the savagery of the attack sickened France, and drew international condemnation.
A suspect, identified by police as a 31-year-old Syrian, was detained in connection with the morning attack in the town of Annecy. French authorities said he had recently been refused asylum in France, because Sweden had already granted him permanent residency and refugee status a decade ago.
Witnesses reported scenes of terror as the man roamed the park, ambushing victims with his blade.
“I said to the police, ‘Shoot him, kill him! He’s stabbing everyone,'” Anthony Le Tallec, a former professional soccer player who was jogging when he came across the attacker, said.
Lead prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis said the man's motives were unknown but did not appear to be terrorism-related. He was armed with a folding knife, she said.
She said all four children suffered life-threatening knife wounds. The youngest is 22 months old, two are age 2 and the oldest is 3, she said. Two of them are French, the other two were tourists — one British, the other Dutch, she said.
Two adults also suffered knife wounds — life-threatening for one them, the prosecutor said. One of the adults was hurt both with the attacker's knife and later by a shot fired by police as they were making the arrest, Bonnet-Mathis said.
Video appearing to show the attack in and around a children’s play park was posted on social media. The footage showed a man in dark glasses and with a blue scarf covering his head brandishing a knife, as people screamed for help.
The man appeared to shout “on name of Jesus Christ” as he waved his knife in the air, while people nearby could be heard screaming: “Police! Police!"
He slashed at a man carrying rucksacks who tried to approach him. Inside the enclosed play park, a panicked woman frantically pushed a stroller as the attacker approached, yelling “Help! Help!” and ramming the stroller into the barriers around the site in her terror.
She tried to fend off the attacker but couldn’t keep him from leaning over the stroller and stabbing downward repeatedly. Afterward, the man strolled almost casually out of the park, letting himself out through a gate, with the man carrying two rucksacks still chasing after him.
French President Emmanuel Macron described the assault as an “attack of absolute cowardice.”
“The nation is in shock,” Macron tweeted.
Le Tallec, the ex-soccer player who witnessed the attack, said in an Instagram video that he first came across “a mother who said to me, ‘Run! Run! There’s someone stabbing everyone.”
“I saw him sprinting straight for some grandpas and grandmas. And there, he attacked, he attacked the grandpa, he stabbed him.”
The prosecutor said the suspect had been living in the Annecy area since last fall and had no fixed address. An ice cream seller who works in the waterside park said he'd seen the attacker there several days earlier, looking out at the lake ringed by mountains.
The suspect was a political refugee in Sweden, the prosecutor said. The Swedish Migration Agency said he was granted permanent residency in 2013. The agency did not identify the suspect but said he subsequently sought Swedish citizenship in 2017 and 2018, both times denied, and applied again in August 2022.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the suspect entered France legally, and “for some reasons we don’t really understand, he applied for asylum in Switzerland, in Italy and in France, which he didn’t need to do as he already had asylum in Sweden for the past 10 years.”
On Sunday, Darmanin said, the suspect "was notified he couldn’t get asylum in France because he already has it in Sweden.”
The attack shattered the relaxed atmosphere in the picturesque park and left visitors and local residents reeling.
Eleanor Vincent, an American author vacationing in Annecy, told The Associated Press of her shock.
“As soon as I heard the sirens and saw police running, I knew something horrible was happening,” Vincent said.
Crowds stood in “absolute silence,” dumbfounded as the tragedy unfolded, she said.
“As a parent who has lost a child, I know what these parents are experiencing. It’s a horror beyond belief," Vincent added.
Google-owned YouTube said in a statement Thursday that it had removed and put age restrictions on some bystander-filmed footage of the attack, in accordance with its policies against graphic violence meant to shock or disgust. Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta said it was also identifying and removing any copy of or link to videos that depicted the victims of the attack.
Both YouTube and Meta said they would remove any content that praises the perpetrator.
Twitter didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday about how it’s handling the videos.
In Paris, lawmakers interrupted a debate to hold a moment of silence for the victims.
The assembly president, Yaël Braun-Pivet, said: "There are some very young children who are in critical condition, and I invite you to respect a minute of silence for them, for their families, and so that, we hope, the consequences of this very grave attack do not lead to the nation grieving.”
Gregory Ros in Annecy, Thomas Adamson in Paris, Jill Lawless in London, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Nicolas Vaux-Montagny in Lyon, France and Matt O'Brien in Providence, Rhode Island also contributed.
John Leicester, The Associated Press