In an instant, a joyous Bastille Day celebration becomes murderous nightmare


JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have two other major news stories that also dominated this day.

First, the aftermath of last night's attack in Southern France. More than 80 people died in Nice, and more than 200 were injured, when a large truck rode down revelers; 24 hours later, there was no claim of responsibility, and more questions than answers.

Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

JANE FERGUSON, Special Correspondent: The crime scene, along the city's waterfront, was eerily quiet today, as investigators and forensics teams searched for evidence. Covered bodies still dotted the palm-tree-lined boulevard.

Throughout the day, onlookers visited the site, many still in shock.

MININA LIUBOV: I don't feel safe. I don't feel safe for me, I don't feel safe for my family, not for my children. I don't feel safe.

JANE FERGUSON: Police have now identified the attacker as 31-year-old Mohamed Bouhlel, a Tunisian man who lived in Nice.

Last night, he plowed a large white truck into crowds of revelers. This promenade along the shorefront in Nice was packed with people who had come to celebrate Bastille Day. In France, that's essentially their version of July 4. And so there are fireworks here, and many brought their families to enjoy them. And, tragically, that's why so many children were amongst the casualties.

The celebrating turned to bloody chaos, when the truck hurtled down the popular Promenade des Anglais along the Mediterranean coastline for a full mile-and-a-half. Officials estimated some 30,000 people, including many tourists, were gathered there, and the driver zigzagged to run down as many as possible.

MELISSA CHARLET, Eyewitness: It was horrible. At the beginning, we didn't understand what was going on. We saw the truck and, suddenly, life came to a halt. Then we saw the people panicking and running towards the alleys, and we followed them.

FRANCOIS, Eyewitness: Everybody was running. Some people were on the phone. Most of the people were on the phone, calling their friends, "Where are you? I have lost you." Some — some mothers with their children, they were looking for their children, and losing their shoes and running, running just escaping. And it was really scary.

JANE FERGUSON: The carnage ended only when police killed Bouhlel in a hail of gunfire, leaving the truck's windshield riddled with bullets. It also left investigators to puzzle out what drove a man who had no immediately apparent links to extremists to do this.

FRANCOIS MOLINS, Paris Prosecutor (through translator): The investigation will indeed aim to determine, firstly, how the attacker was able to get the weapon and truck he used for his crimes. It will also try to determine whether he benefited from accomplices and had ties to an Islamist terrorist organization.

This type of action fits in perfectly with the constant calls for murder from such terrorist organizations.

JANE FERGUSON: This afternoon, the truck was hauled away from the scene.

Elsewhere in Nice, President Francois Hollande met with police and military authorities, and he ran into catcalls on the way there, after the third mass casualty attack since January of last year.

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, France (through translator): The lesson that we must also learn from this tragedy, from this terrorist attack, is that we are facing a long battle. We have an enemy that will continue to attack all the people, all the countries who possess freedom as an essential value.

JANE FERGUSON: Hollande has called up military and police reservists, and is moving to extend a state of emergency for three more months. It was put in place after last November's Islamic State attacks across Paris killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more.

Condolences also poured in from other capitals. In Washington, President Obama reflected on the tragedy, as he hosted a diplomatic reception.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We pledge to stand with our French friends as we defend our nations against this scourge of terrorism and violence. And this is a threat to all of us. We don't know all the details, but what we know is the capacity of even a single individual to do extraordinary harm to our people, to our way of life.

JANE FERGUSON: And, around the world, people paid respect to the victims by leaving flowers at French embassies.

And here in France, the government has declared three days of national mourning, beginning tomorrow, as investigators search for answers in a shaken country. Judy?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jane, we are seeing the grief and the shock on the part of the French people. How is this affecting the politics of the country?

JANE FERGUSON: Well, we have already seen today, Judy, far-right leaders jumping on the issue as a way to promote an anti-immigration stance.

We have seen the leader of the National Front Party, Marine Le Pen, say there should be a war declared on radical Islam. Now, it's not clear yet whether or not this attack was in fact linked to radical Islam. No group like ISIS or al-Qaida have claimed responsibility, but it has reignited a debate in France about immigration because the attacker was of Tunisian descent.

Now, here, where the attack took place, people have been coming down to pay their respects today. You may see behind me where some flowers have been placed. People have been lighting candles and leaving mementos here. And they have been having lively debates about that very subject, some saying that the government here needs to take a stronger stance against immigration, but others here also saying that this is not the time for such divisions and that, in fact, this violence shouldn't be responded to violently and that France itself should pull together.

But, again, we're seeing after such an attack as we have seen in the past in Europe and America, where large numbers of civilians have been targeted, there is afterwards a lively and sometimes very divisive debate about immigration, and France is no different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jane Ferguson reporting for us from Nice, France, the site of last night's terrible attack.

Thank you, Jane.

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