The attack on a church near the Normandy city of France’s Rouen on Tuesday in which a priest and two hostage-takers were killed was claimed by the Islamic State group.
Two attackers slit the throat of an 86-year-old priest celebrating Mass in the church, killing him and gravely injuring one of the few worshippers present before being shot to death by police. A nun who escaped said she saw the attackers video themselves and "give a sermon in Arabic" around the altar.
Police rescued three other people inside the church — including a second nun — in the small northwestern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, said Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet.
A regional Muslim leader said one of the two attackers — both killed outside the church — was known to police. A police official said he had tried to go to Syria.
It was the first known attack claimed by IS inside a church in the West. A church outside Paris was targeted last year, but the attack never was carried out.
A statement published by the Islamic State-affiliated Amaq news agency said the attack was carried out by "two soldiers of the Islamic State" who acted in response to calls to target nations in the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria.
The statement echoed claims in other recent attacks in France and neighboring Germany. It repeated its threat to Western "crusaders."
The RAID special intervention force carried out a search for possible explosives in or around the church.
"The investigations are ongoing. There are still unknowns," Brandet said. "There are dogs, explosive detectors and bomb disposal services" at the church outside Rouen.
A nun who was in the church said the priest was forced to the ground before his throat was slit. The nun, identified as Sister Danielle, told BFM television: "They forced him to his knees. He wanted to defend himself. And that's when the tragedy happened."
The incident comes as France is under high alert after an attack in Nice that killed 84 people and a string of deadly attacks last year claimed by the Islamic State group. France is also under a state of emergency and has extra police presence in the wake of the July 14 Nice attack.
Islamic State extremists have urged followers to attack French churches and the group is believed to have planned at least one church attack earlier.
French President Francois Hollande, arriving on the scene, called it a "vile terrorist attack" and one more sign that France is at war with the Islamic State group, which has claimed a string of attacks on France plus two in Germany.
"We must lead this war with all our means," he said, adding that he was calling a meeting on Wednesday of representatives of all religions.
He expressed solidarity with local Catholics, saying "they have been terribly hit by the killing of the parish priest by two terrorists claiming to belong to Daesh. I have met with the family of the priest."
The town mayor, Hubert Wulfranc, in tears, denounced the "barbarism" and, breaking down, pleaded, "Let us together be the last to cry."
A police official said one of the attackers had been turned back after trying to go to Syria. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal details of the investigation, said the man was under police supervision and wore an electronic bracelet to monitor his movements.