Macron visits young knife-attack victims
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Macron visits young knife-attack victims

Right-wing politicians in France seize on Syrian identity of attacker

A woman places flowers near the site where children were stabbed on Thursday morning in a playground in the southeastern Alpine town of Annecy, France. (Photo: AFP)
A woman places flowers near the site where children were stabbed on Thursday morning in a playground in the southeastern Alpine town of Annecy, France. (Photo: AFP)

ANNECY, France: French President Emmanuel Macron was visiting preschool children badly wounded in a mass knife attack by a Syrian refugee, as police questioned the attacker Friday.

Four children — aged between 22 months and three years old — were stabbed Thursday in a playground in the Alpine town of Annecy, a normally idyllic lakeside spot popular with tourists.

While prosecutors insisted they did not see a terror motive, the rampage intensified tensions in France over immigration, with right-wing politicians seizing on the suspect's origins.

Macron and his wife Brigitte arrived in the southeastern city of Grenoble, where three of the children are being treated, and are also to visit those who have "contributed in helping and supporting them", the presidency said.

The fourth child is in a Swiss hospital over the border in Geneva.

There was conflicting reports about the condition of the child victims — one of whom is British and another Dutch.

"From what I understand, there are still two children considered to be in critical condition," government spokesman Olivier Veran told French radio.

But Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said all the children had been operated on and were in a "stable" condition. Two elderly men were also wounded.

Macron was also to meet a man named Henri who is being hailed as a hero for chasing the attacker from the playground.

An impromptu shrine emerged overnight at the park with people placing candles, flowers and messages.

"We are not prepared for these kinds of events," said local Leo Ganassali, 21 as he laid flowers. "I came as a child to play in this park and to see it in mourning is very, very tough."

'State of shock' 

The attacker, dressed in black and carrying a blade around 10 centimetres (four inches) long, could be heard shouting "in the name of Jesus Christ", according to a video taken by a bystander and seen by AFP.

Regional prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis said that the detention of the suspect, named as Abdalmasih H., who is under investigation for attempted murder, had been extended after a psychiatric examination.

Recently divorced from a Swedish national and in his early 30s, the suspect had previously lived for 10 years in Sweden where he was granted refugee status in April, security sources and his ex-wife told AFP.

"He called me around four months ago. He was living in a church," his ex-wife said, adding that he left Sweden because he had been unable to get Swedish nationality.

The attacker's mother, who has lived in the United States for 10 years, said she was "in a state of shock".

'Troubling coincidence'

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told broadcaster TF1 that "for reasons not well explained he had also sought asylum in Switzerland, Italy and France".

It emerged that his application in France was rejected last Sunday as he already enjoyed refugee status in Sweden.

Darmanin described the turning down of that application and the stabbings as a "troubling coincidence".

Witnesses described the assailant running around the park on the banks of Lake Annecy wearing a bandana and sunglasses, apparently attacking people at random. Armed police arrested him at the scene.

France has suffered a series of attacks in the last decade or so, most of them by Islamic extremists.

Most recently, the beheading of a teacher in broad daylight in 2020 near his school in a Paris suburb by a radicalised Chechen refugee led to a wave of shock and a national debate about the influence of radical Islam in deprived areas.

 'Not the time'

Thursday's attack spurred fresh debate of France's immigration and asylum policy.

"It seems like the culprit has the same profile that you see often in these attacks," the head of the right-wing Republicans party, Eric Ciotti, told reporters at parliament.

French far-right National Rally (RN) figurehead Marine Le Pen meanwhile told French radio that France should "regain sovereignty" on immigration.

But government spokesman Veran said such debates were premature "when we are in the time of emotion, when the kids are on the operating table."

"Now is not the time," he said.

Borne added: "We are still in the process of emotion, in the process of caring for these little children. I invite everyone to show dignity in these circumstances."

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