World

2nd attacker in France hostage-taking was also known to police

The second attacker in the deadly assault on a Normandy church was a 19-year-old from eastern France who had been spotted last month in Turkey as he supposedly headed to Syria — but who returned to France instead, French officials say.

Police say the man is likely in a photo provided to them four days before the attack

A wreath of flowers from Muslim of France Associations is placed with flowers next to the church where an hostage taking left a priest dead the day before in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)

The second attacker in Tuesday's deadly assault on a Normandy church was a 19-year-old from eastern France who had been spotted last month in Turkey as he supposedly headed to Syria — but who returned to France instead, French officials said Thursday.

The prosecutor's office identified him as Abdel-Malik Nabil Petitjean following DNA tests. A security official confirmed that he was the unidentified man pictured in a photo distributed to police four days earlier with a warning that he could be planning an attack.

Petitjean and another 19-year-old local man, Adel Kermiche, stormed the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray during mass on Tuesday. They held five people hostage — the priest, two nuns and an elderly couple — before fatally slashing the priest's throat and seriously wounding the other man. Another nun at the mass slipped away, raised the alarm, and the attackers were killed by police as they left the church.

Kermiche wore an electronic bracelet and was awaiting trial for alleged membership of a terrorist organisation, but had been released on bail.

His tag did not send an alarm because the attack took place during the four-hour period when he was allowed out.

The attack was claimed by ISIS, which released a video Wednesday allegedly showing Kermiche and his accomplice clasping hands and pledging allegiance to the group.

Petitjean was born in eastern France, in Saint-Die-des-Vosges, but recently lived in Aix-les-Bains, where his mother lives, the prosecutor's office said. Kermiche was from Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.

A man detained after the attack was still being held for questioning, the prosecutor's office said.

Flowers, candles and messages are placed at the home of Father Jacques Hamel after he was killed Tuesday. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

On watch list after trip to Turkey

A security official said Turkey spotted Petitjean at an airport going to Syria on June 10, and that on June 29 he was signalled to France and immediately put on a special watch list.

"But he didn't go to Syria," said the official who was not authorized to discuss the case and asked not to be identified by name. "He turned around" and returned to France on June 11.

That information was gleaned as police and intelligence officials tried to track back to learn the identity of the second attacker.

Although it's not clear what caused Petitjean to turn around, in recent months ISIS propaganda has encouraged Western recruits in particular not to join extremists in the war zones in Syria or Iraq but to remain home and carry out attacks.

The agency that co-ordinates the anti-terrorist fight, UCLAT, issued the photo of a man on July 22, warning police that this person — without a name but who turned out to be Petitjean — "could be ready to participate in an attack on national territory."

The UCLAT flyer to law enforcement, obtained by The Associated Press, told police its information came from a trusted source.

It said the person in the photo "could already be present in France and act alone or with other individuals. The date, the target and the modus operandi of these actions are for the moment unknown."

It was not immediately clear how the two men knew each other or when Petitjean travelled from eastern France to Normandy, in the west.

Government criticized for response

The church attack came less than two weeks after an attack by a man barrelling his truck down a pedestrian zone in Nice, on the Riviera, that killed 84 people celebrating France's national day.

ISIS claimed responsibility for that attack, too, as well as two attacks that followed in Germany.

Opposition politicians have responded to the attacks with strong criticism of the government's security record, unlike last year, when they made a show of unity after gunmen and bombers killed 130 people at Paris entertainment venues in November and attacked a satirical newspaper in January.

Hollande's predecessor and potential opponent in a presidential election next year, Nicolas Sarkozy, has said the government must take stronger steps to track known Islamist sympathisers. He has called for the detention or electronic tagging of all suspected Islamist militants, even if they have committed no offence.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve rejected Sarkozy's proposal, saying that to jail them would be unconstitutional, and also counterproductive as many people did not know they were being watched.

Since the two most recent attacks the government has said that summer festivals that do not meet tight security standards are to be cancelled.

A gathering this weekend to honour victims of the Nice attack was cancelled on Thursday, after authorities said law enforcement was too busy protecting against threats. A march Thursday in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray was still expected to take place, however.

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