SAINT-ETIENNE-DU-ROUVRAY, France: President Francois Hollande vowed on Tuesday to wage war against Daesh “by every means” within the law after two men linked to the militant group killed a priest in a French church.
“We are confronted with a group, Daesh, which has declared war on us,” Hollande said.
“We have to wage war, by every means, (but through) upholding the law, which is because we are a democracy.”
Hollande was speaking in a lightning visit to the northern French town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, just hours after the attack took place.
Two assailants entered a local church, slitting the throat of an 84-year-old priest and leaving another hostage with life-threatening injuries, before being killed by police as they left the building, police said.
Hollande said the assailants “claimed to be from Daesh” and branded the assault as a “vile terrorist attack”.
“The Catholic community has been hit, but it is all of the French public which is concerned,” Hollande said.
He called for national unity in the face of terrorism, urging the French people to “create a solid bloc that no one can split”.
France remains on high alert after Tunisian Mohammad Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed a truck into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 84 people and injuring over 300.
The July 14 massacre was the third major terror attack in France in little more than 18 months.
The string of bloody incidents has left the country jittery and stoked political finger-pointing, with conservative politicians accusing the ruling Socialists of being weak or incompetent on security.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said the case was being handled by antiterrorism prosecutors.
The two attackers stormed the church during morning mass, taking five people inside hostage, including the priest, interior ministry spokesman Pierre Henry Brandet said.
He said the church was surrounded by France’s anti-gang brigade the BRI, which specialises in kidnappings, and that “the two assailants came out and were killed by police”.
The priest died after his throat was slit, sources close to the investigation told AFP. The archbishop of the nearby city of Rouen, Dominique Lebrun, named him as 84-year-old Jacques Hamel.
However, the archbishopric’s website states he was born in 1930.
Three of the hostages were freed unharmed, and another was fighting for life, said Brandet.
Pope Francis voiced his “pain and horror” at the “barbaric killing” of the priest.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed his horror at what he called “a barbaric attack on a church”.
“The whole of France and all Catholics are wounded. We will stand together,” he wrote on Twitter.
Lebrun urged all non-believers to join those of the church in “calling to God”.
“The Catholic Church can take up no other weapons than prayer and fraternity between men,” he said in a statement.
France has been a prime target of Daesh, which regularly calls for supporters to launch attacks against the country.
France is involved in carrying out air strikes against the militants in Iraq and Syria.
Attacks in Belgium in March, and in Germany this week, have also increased jitters across Europe.
After Nice, France extended a state of emergency giving police extra powers to carry out searches and place people under house arrest for another six months until January.
It was the fourth time the security measures have been extended since militants struck Paris in November, killing 130 people in a wave of bombings and shootings at restaurants, a concert hall and the national stadium.
Valls had warned earlier this week that the country will face more attacks as it struggles to handle extremists and those radicalised at home by devouring propaganda on the internet.
France has been concerned about the threat against churches ever since Sid Ahmad Ghlam, a 24-year-old Algerian IT student, was arrested in Paris in April last year on suspicion of killing a woman who was found shot dead in the passenger seat of her car, and of planning an attack on a church.
Prosecutors say they found documents about Al Qaida and Daesh at his home, and that he had been in touch with a suspected militant in Syria about an attack on a church.
As part of beefed up security operations in France, some 700 schools and Jewish synagogues and 1,000 mosques are under military protection.
However with some 45,000 Catholic churches, and thousands more Protestant and evangelical churches, protecting all places of worship is a massive headache for security services.
The Nice massacre triggered a bitter political spat over alleged security failings, with the government accused of not doing enough to protect the population.