PARIS - 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. The children between 22 months and 3 years old suffered life-threatening injuries, and two adults also were wounded, authorities said.
The helplessness of the young victims and the savagery of the attack sickened France.
A suspect, identified by police as a 31-year-old Syrian, was detained in connection with the morning attack in the Alpine and lakeside town of Annecy. French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said he had refugee status in Sweden.
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.
Flowers and a message for the victims are placed at a playground in the 'Jardins de l'Europe' in Annecy, in the French Alps, on June 8, 2023, following a mass stabbing in the park of the city. (Photo by OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE/AFP via Getty Images)
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." Of the victims, he said "children and an adult are between life and death."
"The nation is in shock," Macron tweeted.
Le Tallec, the ex-soccer player who witnessed the attack while on a lakeside jog, 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 once. The police behind couldn't catch him."
The police then opened fire and the attacker fell to the ground, having stabbed the older man a second time, Le Tallec said.
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 denied, and applied again in August 2022.
French MPs stand a minute of silence after a knife attack in Annecy, during a session in Paris, on June 8, 2023. (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)
Eleanor Vincent, an American author vacationing in Annecy, told The Associated Press of her shock at seeing an emergency helicopter descending to the picturesque park.
"As soon as I heard the sirens and saw police running, I knew something horrible was happening. I am in shock. It’s a park where they take children out to walk," 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.
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."
Thomas Adamson in Paris, Jill Lawless in London, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny in Lyon, France, contributed.