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French ID 2nd church attacker; police had warning about him

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Residents gather in a town park for a solemn homage to the Rev. Jacques Hamel in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy, France, on Thursday. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
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PARIS — French officials on Thursday identified the second man responsible for attacking a Catholic church in Normandy as a 19-year-old who was spotted last month in Turkey as he supposedly headed to Syria — but returned to France instead.

The prosecutor’s office identified him as Abdel-Malik Nabil Petitjean following DNA tests on his corpse. A security official confirmed that he was the unidentified man pictured in a photo distributed to French police July 22 with a warning that he could be planning an attack.

Four days later, Petitjean and a 19-year-old local man, Adel Kermiche, stormed the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray during morning Mass. They held five people hostage — the priest, two nuns and an elderly couple — before fatally slashing the priest’s throat and seriously wounding the other man. Another nun at the Mass slipped away and raised the alarm. Police shot to death both attackers as they left the church.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility and released a video Wednesday allegedly showing Kermiche and Petitjean clasping hands and pledging allegiance to IS.

Prosecutors said Petitjean was born in Saint-Die-des-Vosges, eastern France, but most recently lived in the Alpine town of Aix-les-Bains where his mother lives. Kermiche was from Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.

A youth aged about 16 who was detained after the attack was still being questioned Thursday, the prosecutor’s office said.

Thursday’s revelations showed that anti-terrorist authorities came close twice to identifying Petitjean as a threat — but couldn’t put his name to his picture as part of two disconnected intelligence tipoffs.

First, according to a French security official, France received a report from Turkish counterparts that Petitjean was seen passing through a Turkish airport June 10 destined for Syria. France duly placed Petitjean’s name on a long list of names of French residents who travel to Syria and Iraq, either to fight with IS forces or simply to live among them. The database of citizens considered a potential danger is used to maintain a lookout for militants returning from the war zone.

However, Petitjean never went to Syria but instead returned almost immediately to France, the security official said, and was back inside the country long before his name was added June 29 to France’s watch list. The official was not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

While it’s uncertain what caused Petitjean to turn around, in recent months Islamic State propaganda has encouraged Western recruits not to join extremists in the war zones in Syria or Iraq but to remain home and carry out attacks.

Meanwhile, the French anti-terrorism coordinating agency UCLAT issued a photo of Petitjean July 22 to police warning that he “could be ready to participate in an attack on national territory.” But the photo warning came without any name of the person depicted.

The UCLAT flyer, obtained by The Associated Press, advised police its information came from a trusted source. The security official said the source was a foreign partner, but did not name the country. The flyer said the person in the photo “could already be present in France and act alone or with other individuals. The date, the target and the modus operandi of these actions are for the moment unknown.”

It was not clear how the two men knew each other or when Petitjean traveled to Normandy in northwest France.

Intelligence officials worked Thursday to try to explain how Petitjean, a young man without a police record, ended up in the Normandy church with Kermiche, while the people of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray paid homage to the Rev. Jacques Hamel at a gathering. The priest was to be buried Tuesday at the Cathedral of Rouen.

“There will be no silence here … or beyond,” Mayor Hubert Wulfranc said of the loss of the town’s 85-year-old priest in an address to hundreds.

Wulfranc called for “words and acts of peace … in our streets, in our squares” to serve as examples to the town’s children. Such a message, he said, was a way to counter “wandering, then the dehumanization of some children here and elsewhere.”

Muslims, too, planned homages in the coming days. An umbrella organization for Muslims, the French Council for the Muslim Faith, asked Muslims to visit churches Sunday “to express anew solidarity and compassion.”

The church attack came less than two weeks after a man used a truck to mow down pedestrians on the Nice waterfront, killing 84 people on France’s national day, Bastille Day.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for that attack, too, as well as two attacks that followed in Germany.

A gathering this weekend to honor victims of the Nice attack was canceled Thursday after authorities said law enforcement was too busy protecting against threats.

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