AN ISIS knifeman who killed two cousins during a bloody attack in Marseille had been arrested by cops one day earlier – but was released.
The terror group said its “soldier” launched a frenzied knife rampage at Gare Saint Charles — while screaming “Allahu Akbar”, according to witnesses.
The man shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ as he murdered the 17-year-old student and 21-year-old nurse outside St-Charles station in the southern city of Marseille on Sunday afternoon.
Neither the man, who was aged between 30 and 35, nor his female victims have been formally identified but all have links with the city of Lyon, which is 250 miles north of Marseille.
Passengers were evacuated by armed police on Sunday afternoon after soldiers fatally shot the killer knifeman — a known criminal believed to be in his 30s.
Now it had emerged the attacker – who was a North African of either Algerian or Tunisian origin – was arrested in Lyon for shoplifting on Friday.
“Instead they let him go, and the next they heard about him was in connection with a double murder,’ said an investigating source in Marseille.”
A statement from the ISIS’s propaganda agency said: “The executor of the stabbing operation in the city of Marseille… is from the soldiers of the Islamic State.”
But French investigators have so far held back from declaring the attack in France’s second city as terrorism — and ISIS have in the past claimed responsibility for killings that it had no hand in planning.
Witnesses have told of the traumatic moments the attacker pounced on the two women before charging at soldiers who opened fire, fatally wounding him.
“We heard two shots and saw people rushing down the stairs from the station”, said Ninon Bornet, a chef a cafe beside the station told Le Parisien.
“We brought in all our customers, we barricaded ourselves in the restaurant”.
Another told of “the smell of gunfire” in the air moments after the attacker was felled by two soldiers as he charged at them.
“Outside the soldiers and plainclothes policemen held the crowd”, said 29-year-old Arthur.
“Two policemen in bulletproof vests and armed with assault rifles screamed instructions before leaving very quickly”.
“I heard someone shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ and I saw a man who seemed to be dressed all in black,” Melanie Petit, an 18-year-old student, told AFP news agency.
Other travellers around the station described “controlled panic” as security forces evacuated passengers and looked for possible accomplices, while another witness said white sheets were placed over the bodies of the victims.
“There were police everywhere,” said Francois Jacquel, a retired traveller who was in a waiting room.
Cops scrambled to the scene in southern France at around 2pm local time on Sunday, sparking an immediate mass evacuation.
Confirming the injuries and fatalities, Oliver de Mazieres, a local official, said: “Two victims have been stabbed to death”.
Neither have yet been identified, but a police source said they were “in their 20s”.
“The attack was frenzied,” said an investigating source. “The man first shouted threats, and then launched into the two women.
“The two were killed by a knife, and then soldiers on anti-terrorism duties intervened. They shot the man dead. At least one large butcher’s knife was used by the attacker.”
The servicemen were deployed as part of Operation Sentinel, a wide-ranging security initiative that has flooded French streets with around 7,000 soldiers.
Police sources claimed the incident is likely to be a terror attack, although this is yet to be confirmed.
Locals were urged to stay away from the area, with the scene described as as a “major police incident”.
“There was screaming and shouting, and people were running everywhere,” said one witness.
“People were picking up children, and trying to help those who weren’t very good on their feet. They just wanted to get away.”
Another female witness called Hajar told FranceInfo: “I heard two shots, that was what triggered the panic.
“People came out of a waiting room shouting ‘Run! Don’t stay in the station. Everybody outside.’
“I had just got to the station when everyone started running. People sitting on the terrace of a fast food restaurant came inside and shouted ‘Run, get out! Then I saw a woman on the floor, they were giving her CPR.”
Anti-terror officials have launched an investigation into the “killings linked to a terrorist organisation”.
President Emmanuel Macron said he was “deeply outraged” by the “barbarous” knife attack, while his prime minister Edouard Philippe praised the soldiers who shot the suspect and stopped the “killing frenzy”.
French interior minister Gerard Collomb rushed to Marseille to liaise with authorities.
Speaking to reporters at the police cordon, he said video footage obtained by investigators showed the attacker knifing the two women before he charged at soldiers and was shot.
“This act could be terrorist in nature but at this time we cannot confirm that,” he added.
The knife rampage comes as France is still on high alert following a string of deadly terror attacks which began in January 2015.
Before this incident, 239 people were killed by Islamist extremists over the last two years in France.
After the November 2015 terror attack, which unfolded at the Bataclan concert hall, then President Francois Hollande declared a state of emergency.
Security forces received increased power to use force and launch prompt anti-terror raids.
There have also been a series of smaller onslaughts in France.
A knifeman attacked a soldier at a Paris Metro station last month, but he was swiftly arrested.
In August, a man driving a van killed a person and left another injured after he mowed a bus stop down in Marseille.
Sunday’s incident comes days after Islamic State released a recording of a man they claimed was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – the terror network’s leader – urging his followers to strike their Western enemies.
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