NICE, France (AP) — The Islamic State group claimed Saturday that the Tunisian man who barreled his truck into a crowd in the French resort city of Nice was a “soldier” of the group. It’s the first claim of responsibility for an attack that claimed 84 lives at a July 14 fireworks display for France’s national holiday.
The claim — circulated on social media by a news outlet affiliated with the group — didn’t name Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the 31-year-old Tunisian who authorities say was behind the wheel as a truck crashed into revelers Thursday night. But the statement quoting an IS security member said the man was following calls from the group to target citizens of countries fighting it.
The veracity of the group’s claim couldn’t immediately be determined, but French officials didn’t dispute it.
What is known publicly about Bouhlel so far suggests a troubled, angry man with little interest in the group’s ultra-puritanical brand of Islam. But, in a statement to reporters, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve hinted that Bouhlel may have had a last-minute adoption of a more extremist worldview.
“It seems he was radicalized very quickly,” Cazeneuve said following a ministerial meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris.
It’s also unclear whether or not Bouhlel, who was shot dead by police that night, had been acting alone.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said Saturday that five people are in custody following the attack. The identities of most of those taken into custody were not clear. But neighbors in the Nice neighborhood where the Bouhlel used to live told The Associated Press that his estranged wife had been taken away Friday by police.
The claim of responsibility came as French security chiefs met in Paris and as Nice’s seaside boulevard, the famous Promenade des Anglais, was slowly coming back to life. A makeshift memorial of bouquets, candles and messages had been set up near one end of the expansive avenue.
Officials said that 202 people had been wounded in the attack, with 25 of them on life support late Friday.
France on Saturday began three days of national mourning in homage to the victims — although that hasn’t stopped politicians from sniping at each other over who bore responsibility for the failing to stop the attack.
In an open letter published on the Nice Matin newspaper’s website, regional council President Christian Estrosi — a member of France’s opposition Republicans — described the country’s current Socialist leadership as “incapable.” He said he had requested that the police presence be reinforced in Nice ahead of the fireworks display but was told there was no need.
Cazeneuve, speaking at the Elysee, disagreed, saying that high security had been assured in the region — including at the Cannes Film Festival and the Nice Carnival. Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll warned against attempts to divide the country, calling for “unity and cohesion.”
France is heading into elections next year, and the deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande is facing multiple challengers, from within his own Socialist Party, from the right-wing Republicans and from the far-right National Front.
(Copyright 2016 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)