At least 84 dead in Nice, France after 19-tonne truck ploughs two kilometres through Bastille Day crowd

The attack was of an 'undeniable terrorist nature', a sombre Hollande said in a televised national address, confirming that several children were among the dead as families came together to celebrate France's national day. Photograph:( Getty )

WION Nice, France Jul 15, 2016, 02.17 AM (IST) Amanda Clark

At least 84 are dead, including more than 10 children, after a truck slammed into a crowd late Thursday night in the southern French city of Nice. 

About 30 000 were out celebrating France’s Bastille Day, their day of liberty. Many families stayed up late to watch the fireworks. Eyewitnesses say the truck was driving at full speed towards the crowds, zigzagging to ensure the driver hit as many people as possible. Parents were seen frantically throwing their children out of harm’s way.

The driver, a 31-year-old Frenchman of Tunisian descent, was shot dead by police at the scene. He has been identified by local media as Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel. Guns and a grenade were found inside the truck but are reported to be fakes.

According to Tunisian security sources, the attacker Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was married and had three children. He visited Tunisia frequently, the last time eight months ago.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been in trouble with the police in the past for petty crime, but he was not on the watch list of radicalised young men.

A photograph showed the front of the truck riddled with bullet holes and badly damaged, with burst tyres.

A lone doll lay abandoned on the promenade where families celebrated the holiday just hours earlier.

Robert Holloway, an AFP reporter who witnessed the white truck driving at speed into the crowd, described scenes of "absolute chaos".

"We saw people hit and bits of debris flying around. I had to protect my face from flying debris," Holloway said.

On Twitter, people mobilised fast, with citizens offering safe refuge under the hashtag #PortesOuvertesNice (Nice Open Doors).

An account called SOS Nice was set up where desperate pleas for news of missing loved ones went out with pictures of a young girl with braces or a teenager pulling a funny face among those posted.

Some were quickly tracked down, according to relieved tweets.

French President Francois Hollande said 50 injured were in a critical condition "between life and death” and many of the victims were foreigners. Two American citizens, a Ukrainian, a Russian and a Swiss woman are among the dead.

Hollande has announced that he will extend the state of emergency for another three months. It has been in place since November's Paris attacks carried out by Islamic State militants in which 130 died. 

'Horrific terrorist attack'

The attack is the third major strike against France in less than 18 months and prosecutors said anti-terrorist investigators will handle the probe.

The Islamic State group has repeatedly singled out France as a prime target for its military actions against the group in Iraq and Syria, and hundreds of jihadists have left France to go and fight in its ranks.

Luc Belmont, a taxi driver in Nice, said “the people of Nice are enraged at what has happened and heartbroken too.” 

But Belmont believes the blame lies with the authorities. “You reap what you sow. These people are getting radicalised in our own jails. We need to stop it there, we have not been dealing with this problem.” 

The French police are still dealing with a scene of a mass murder that extends over two kilometres. Before there can be tributes to the victims, they have to fully investigate and clear the crime scene.

World leaders expressed their sadness and their solidarity with France.

US President Barack Obama condemned "in the strongest terms" what he said appeared to be "a horrific terrorist attack in Nice”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote “India shares the pain & stands firmly with our French sisters & brothers in this hour of immense sadness.” 

While, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said she was "shocked and saddened by the horrifying attack in Nice"

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has declared three days of national mourning, starting from Saturday.

'He crushed a lot of people'

The Mediterranean city of Nice, with its pebble beaches and clear blue water, has been a magnet for sun-seekers and the jet-set since the 19th century.

A witness named Nader told BFM television he had seen the whole attack from start to finish and had initially thought the driver had "lost control".

"I was in the street. He stopped just in front of me after he (crushed) a lot of people. I saw a guy in the street, we were trying to speak to the driver to get him to stop."

"He looked nervous. There was a girl under the car, he smashed her. The guy next to me pulled her out," he said in broken English.

Nadr said he saw the driver pull out a gun and start shooting at police.

"They killed him and his head was out the window."

The Promenade des Anglais was sealed off, crawling with police and ambulances as authorities from the local Alpes-Maritimes prefecture urged residents to stay indoors.

Over the past week, France had been breathing a sigh of relief after successfully hosting the month-long Euro 2016 football championship which passed off without incident despite fears of attacks.

The tournament brought an all-too-brief burst of joy to a gloomy France, bogged down after the two attacks in 2015, violent anti-government protests, strikes and floods.

European Council president Donald Tusk said: "It's a sad day for France, for Europe, for all of us."

"The subjects of the attack were people celebrating liberty, equality and fraternity." 

(WION with inputs from AFP)