Dec 23, 2014 8:01 AM
France finds no links among 3 attacks in 3 days
The Associated Press
NANTES, France (AP) The white van barreled into the Christmas market and the unsuspecting crowd, striking 10 people in this coastal city before the driver began stabbing himself with a knife.
After a third day of seemingly random violence at the height of the holiday season, France's government implored people to remain calm Tuesday. Officials said the attacks were unrelated, and that the two drivers in particular had no direct links to terrorism or radical Islam. The prime minister lamented "the ravages of propaganda on fragile minds."
Then they increased military patrols.
"People were running everywhere, we ran toward the man, we saw him stabbing himself," said Mohammed Bader Ghegate, who was among the witnesses in the Monday night attack at the Christmas market in Nantes.
A 25-year-old man died Tuesday of injuries sustained in the attack, local prosecutor Brigitte Lamy said at a news conference. The driver remains hospitalized and police have not been able to question him, Lamy said.
Just a day before, on the other side of France, another driver had done almost exactly the same thing, bumping over sidewalks and into small groups of people throughout the city of Dijon. Thirteen people were injured.
Both suspects, who survived, have long histories of mental illness. The first attack to set France on edge in recent days, the stabbing of three police officers on Saturday, is so far the only one drawing the attention of counterterrorism investigators.
"These three events have no links, but there is a concurrence that requires vigilance," President Francois Hollande said.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls urged France to avoid overreacting to isolated incidents in a country on alert after repeated threats from Muslim extremists, including one broadcast in a propaganda video on Friday by a masked and bearded Frenchman surrounded by gun-toting Islamic State fighters.
"We want to protect and reassure the French people," Valls said, announcing that as many as 300 soldiers would be added to patrols already in place.
The brother of the man who attacked police Saturday was arrested the same day in their homeland, Burundi. The country's intelligence spokesman said both men had links with radical Islam. In an interview Tuesday with French radio, their sister denied it.
The Dijon man, who cried out "God is great" in Arabic, had been hospitalized 157 times since 2001, the prosecutor said. She described him as having an "incoherent" motive involving the treatment of Chechen children.
The suspect in the Nantes attack had an equally long history of mental illness, government officials said.
Ghegate, the witness in Nantes, contradicted media reports, saying the attacker he saw never cried out 'God is great' in Arabic.
"I said that to myself: 'Allahu Akbar, help us so there is no bloodshed,'" Ghegate told The Associated Press.
On Tuesday, the Christmas market was shuttered, and vendors milling around wore white armbands in solidarity but had little to do.
"It is sad. There won't be any more Christmas spirit. People are afraid," said Nathalie Ledamany, one of the exhibitors. "We can't take a walk and have a glass of hot wine in the evening and celebrate . No, it's gone wrong."
Most people with mental health problems are not violent, and despite new studies that have found links between mental illness and terrorist attacks, psychological problems alone are not an explanation.
Sociologists Ramon Spaaij and Mark Hamm studied 98 extremist attackers in the U.S. They found that 40 percent had identifiable mental health problems, compared with 1.5 percent in the general population.
Some dispute a link entirely, among them Jean-Marie Le Guen, a member of the French administration and a physician who speaks frequently about public health.
"Just because someone takes an image pervasive in society at a given moment and wants to take part in a kind of violence seen elsewhere, doesn't mean the person is motivated by politics or religion," Le Guen said.
(An earlier version of this story indicated incorrectly that the driver of the van involved in the Nantes attack had exited the vehicle.)
Hinnant reported from Paris.