A truck rammed into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in the French Riviera city of Nice tonight, killing 84 people in a terror attack, French officials said.
The truck struck the crowd on the Promenade des Anglais, a seaside walk in center of the city in southern France, according to Nice Matin, a regional newspaper. About 100 people were reported injured.
Local authorities were treating the incident as an attack and urging people to stay home, the French television channel BFM TV reported. It occurred as a large crowd was watching a fireworks display celebrating the French national holiday.
Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, said the death toll has risen to 84. He said in one of a series of Twitter messages that the truck was carrying arms and explosives.
CNN quoted an American witness as saying he saw one person in the large white truck and heard gunfire, although it was not clear whether it came from the driver or was being fired at the vehicle.
The witness said the driver accelerated as he was mowing people down.
The Associated Press quoted Wassim Bouhlel, a Nice native, as saying that after slamming into the crowd, the truck driver emerged with a gun and started shooting.
“There was carnage on the road,” Bouhlel said. “Bodies everywhere.”
The Interior Ministry in Nice said about 100 people were injured and that the truck’s driver was shot by police.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bloodshed, although jihadist networks were celebrating it on social media.
France was rocked by a devastating terrorist attack in November, when heavily armed suicide bombers killed 130 people in several places around Paris. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack, the worst bloodshed on French soil since World War II.
In March, Islamic State attackers killed 32 people in suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and a metro station.
News footage from the scene of the Nice incident showed the truck’s windshield riddled with bullet holes.
Analysts noted that the Islamic State has called on its followers to kill civilians in Western countries by any means possible.
The Islamic State has previously called for attacks using vehicles, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist statements. It said supporters of the radical Islamist organization, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were sharing the news of the Nice attack and “celebrating the massacre.”
Police said people in the vicinity should stay home and follow instructions from authorities.
Witnesses said bodies of victims were strewn over the road for more than a mile. Police urged people not to spread rumors or broadcast shocking videos of the scene.
The Interior Ministry denied reports of a hostage-taking at a hotel and restaurant in Nice.
Despite the admonitions from French police, graphic video and photographs flooded social media. In some, bodies could be seen lying on the boulevard where the truck plowed into the crowd. Revelers ran away from the scene while sirens blared.
A reporter for Agence France-Presse called it “absolute chaos.”
“We saw people hit and bits of debris flying around,” he said.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said President Obama was informed about the situation in Nice and that his national security team would update him as appropriate.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump quickly took to Twitter, writing: “Another horrific attack, this time in Nice, France. Many dead and injured. When will we learn? It is only getting worse.”
In a subsequent tweet, Trump said he was postponing a news conference scheduled for Friday “concerning my Vice Presidential announcement.”
Within half an hour of initial reports of the incident, Facebook had activated its “safety check” feature for people in Nice. On Twitter, others used the hashtag #PortesOuvertesNice (“OpenDoorsNice”) to find and offer refuge to those who needed a place to stay.
In a tweet, the city of Nice urged people to seek shelter that way, and the hashtag was soon trending globally.
Meanwhile, taxis in the city were providing free rides to people seeking to leave the scene.
Maryam Violet, an Iranian journalist visiting Nice on vacation, told the Guardian that she saw the truck running into people as they left the fireworks show.
“I saw that suddenly people were fleeing and shouting,” she said, speaking by phone from Nice. “People were shouting, ‘It’s a terrorist attack! It’s a terrorist attack!’ It was clear that the driver was doing it deliberately.”
“I was walking for nearly a mile, and there were dead bodies all over the place,” she continued. “I think over 30 dead bodies are on the ground and lots of people are injured.”
Violet said she saw bodies covered in blue sheets and families mourning loved ones – two sisters and a brother from Poland who had lost two siblings; a family whose mother had died. She guessed that the family was Muslim, because some members were wearing headscarves.
“In Arabic, they were saying she’s a martyr,” Violet said.
“People were celebrating” before the incident, she said. “And it was so peaceful. It was a festivity vibe. It was right after the fireworks that the truck came and ran over people.”
Zeynep Akar told CNN that the truck drove into crowds right outside her home.
“I suddenly heard the crash and people shouting,” she said. “When I went to the balcony, there were so many people on the ground.”
When she heard the crack of gunfire, she hurried back inside her house and turned off the lights. “I didn’t know what was going on,” she said.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · William Branigin, Sarah Kaplan