Four small children and two adults were injured Thursday when a knife-wielding man attacked them in a playground in a park in the French Alpine town of Annecy.
Two of the children and one adult were in hospital in a life-threatening condition, while the other victims were less seriously hurt.
French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, visiting the town later Thursday, confirmed reports that the suspect was a Syrian man who had applied for refugee status in France.
He was living in Sweden for 10 years and had applied for asylum status in France, but his request had been rejected.
Reports said the children were from a kindergarten class that was playing in the Jardins de l’Europe lakeside park.
He attacked the children – some in pushchairs – before fleeing the scene and stabbing an elderly man nearby.
“He clearly targeted the babies,” a witness named Ferdinand told BFM TV.
“He jumped (in the playground), started shouting and then went towards the strollers, repeatedly hitting the little ones with a knife,” Ferdinand said.
“Mothers were crying, everybody was running,” said another eyewitness, named George, according to Reuters.
As the assailant, who wore a blue-chequered headscarf and sunglasses, slashed at his victims, one bystander tried to stop him by throwing his backpack at him, the video shows. He is 31 and was not known to the French security services, and has no criminal or psychiatric history.
Videos posted to social media show a man with a beard, wearing a headscarf, dark sunglasses and shorts, running in the park and chasing people with a knife in his hand, particularly targeting children.
He was later shot in the leg by the police.
The four injured children were aged between 22 months and three years, Annecy prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis told reporters. They include a two-year-old British girl, a 22-month-old German boy, and a brother and sister aged two and three. One of the children is Dutch, Bonnet-Mathis said.
The adults were two men, one of whom was 78, according to BFMTV.
Ambulances ferried the victims to a nearby hospital.
Anthony Le Tallec, a former professional football player with Liverpool FC, said he was jogging around the waters of Lake Annecy in the foothills of the Alps when a wave of panicked bystanders rushed past in the opposite direction. One mother urged him to turn and run.
French President Emmanuel Macron said “the nation is in shock,” following the attack.
“Absolute cowardice this morning in a park in Annecy. Children and an adult are between life and death. The nation is in shock. Our thoughts are with them, their families and the emergency services,” Macron tweeted.
France’s National Assembly has observed a minute of silence and roads are blocked around the scene of the attack.
Le Paquier park as an usually tranquil place popular with tourists for its stunning views of Lake Annecy and the mountains.
“It’s a place where babysitters and parents take young children to play. I often see around 15 toddlers there in the morning, and the atmosphere is fantastic,” said Yohan, who works at an ice-cream parlour just opposite the park.
Annecy is a quiet city of 135,000 people that lies south of Geneva, Switzerland.
Astorg, the mayor of Annecy, asked residents to avoid the area where the knife attack took place, to ease the work of authorities.
(Agencies; Picture Courtesy: Sotiri Dimpinoudis, Twitter)