PARIS (AP) — Four young children stabbed in a playground in the French Alps are no longer in life-threatening condition but remain hospitalized, the regional prosecutor said Saturday, as the suspected attacker was handed preliminary charges of attempted murder.
The victims came from multiple countries, and the impact from the unusually savage and incomprehensible attack Thursday reverberated across France and beyond. The children who were stabbed, between 22 months and 3 years old, were in hospitals in France and Switzerland.
The suspect, a 31-year-old Syrian refugee with permanent Swedish residency, has a 3-year-old daughter living in Sweden, regional prosecutor Line Bonnet-Mathis told reporters Saturday. Witnesses told investigators that the suspect mentioned his daughter, his wife and Jesus Christ during the attack Thursday targeting a playground in the lakeside town of Annecy.
Police detained the suspect in the park in the town of Annecy after bystanders — notably, a Catholic pilgrim who repeatedly swung at the attacker with his backpack — sought to deter him.
The suspected attacker, whose name was not released, was presented to investigating judges in Annecy on Saturday and given charges of attempted murder and armed resistance, Bonnet-Mathis said. He is in custody pending further investigation.
The suspect refused to talk to investigators, and was examined by a psychiatrist and other doctors who deemed him fit to face charges, the prosecutor said. She said that the motive remained unclear, but it didn’t appear to be terrorism-related.
The suspected attacker wore a cross and carried two Christian images with him at the time of the attack, the prosecutor said. He also had 480 euros in cash with him and a Swedish driver's license, and had been sleeping in the common area of an Annecy apartment building.
He had traveled from Sweden to Italy and Switzerland before coming to France last October, and French police are coordinating with colleagues in those countries to learn more about his trajectory, said Damien Delaby, director of the regional judicial police.
The child victims were two French 2-year-old cousins, a boy and a girl, who were in the playground with their grandmother when the assailant appeared; a British 3-year-old girl visiting Annecy with her parents; and a 22-month-old Dutch girl, according to the prosecutor.
French President Emmanuel Macron visited the victims and their families, first responders and witnesses Friday. Macron said doctors were “very confident” about the conditions of the two cousins, who were the most critically injured.
The wounded British girl “is awake, she’s watching television,” Macron added. The Dutch girl also has improved, and a critically injured adult — who was both knifed and wounded by a shot that police fired as they detained the suspected attacker — is regaining consciousness, Macron said.
The seriously injured adult, a Portuguese man, was wounded trying to stop the attacker from fleeing police. Portugal’s foreign ministry said he is “now out of danger.”
In a statement Saturday, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa thanked the man, Manuel Ponte, for his bravery.
The second injured adult was discharged from a hospital, his left elbow bandaged.
The pilgrim dubbed “the hero with the backpack,” a 24-year-old Frenchman named Henri, is on a walking and hitchhiking tour of France's cathedrals,. He told French broadcaster BFMTV that he’d been setting off to another abbey when the horror unfolded in front of him. The attacker slashed at him, but Henri held his ground and used a weighty backpack he was carrying to swing at the assailant.
Henri’s father told The Associated Press that his son “told me that the Syrian was incoherent, saying lots of strange things in different languages, invoking his father, his mother, all the Gods.”
The suspect’s profile fueled renewed criticism from far-right and conservative politicians about French migration policies. But authorities noted that the suspect entered France legally, because he has permanent residency status in Sweden. Sweden and France are both members of the EU and Europe’s border-free travel zone.
He applied for citizenship in Sweden in 2017 and 2018 but was denied, according to the Swedish Migration Agency. Sweden's TV4 television, citing the citizenship refusal document, reported that he was denied because he had served in the Syrian army.
He applied for asylum in France last year and was refused a few days before the attack, on the grounds that he had already won asylum in Sweden in 2013, the French interior minister said.
Annecy is planning a public gathering at the site of the attack on Sunday in support of the victims.
Vaux-Montagny reported from Lyon, France. Karl Ritter in Stockholm and Helena Alves in Lisbon, Portugal contributed.
Nicolas Vaux-montagny And Angela Charlton, The Associated Press