NICE, France (Reuters) - The Bastille Day killer drove his truck up a low kerb and onto the Nice waterfront to get at his victims, using an apparently easy and unblocked route that delivery drivers take daily, according to witnesses and the French government’s account.
The ease with which Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel reached the pedestrianised Promenade des Anglais, where he killed 84 people by driving the rented white truck into a crowd on Thursday, has become a focus for criticism of security arrangements at the event.
The mass killing, claimed by Islamic State, was the third in France since January 2015. The nation has lived under a state of emergency since November, when 130 people were killed in Paris.
Although the government says it has thwarted 16 other attacks, it is under severe pressure to show that security at the Riviera city’s July 14 fireworks festival was as good as it could have been.
The truck the 31-year-old Tunisian delivery man drove weighed 6 tonnes unladen and 19 tonnes with a full load, according to vehicle experts. It was likely to have been about 2.5 metres wide.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Saturday that the truck breached the security cordon “in a violent manner”.
“Police vehicles made reaching the Promenade des Anglais impossible, and it was via the pavement, and in a very violent manner, that this truck managed to get through and the driver to commit his crime,” Cazeneuve told reporters on Saturday in a prepared statement.
But the kerb is low at the point where Bouhlel left the road, suggesting that all he had to do to avoid the blockade was veer seawards and mount the promenade.
Alieva Aysel, who lives nearby and saw Bouhlel begin his rampage, said vans went that way all the time.
“There are places along the pavement where you can get up with a truck, even during the day there are trucks in the morning delivering drinks, ice creams and things for the restaurants on the beach ... like here for example,” she said, indicating the spot in question.
The local Nice prefecture declined to respond to Reuters questions about how, or whether, the promenade was protected from rogue vehicles.
In his statement on Saturday, Cazeneuve also described the way Bouhlel ran down the revellers as a “new kind of attack” on the basis that the killer was not heavily armed and did not use explosives.
But the use of vehicles as a weapon is common in the Middle East, and not new in western countries.
In 2006, Mohammed Taheri-azar, an American-Iranian, drove an SUV into an area crowded with students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
The following year, attackers rammed a vehicle into Glasgow airport in Scotland. In 2013 Islamist militants in London ran over soldier Lee Rigby in a car before hacking him to death, and in September 2014, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued a public statement urging followers to use vehicles as weapons.
Christian Estrosi, president of the wider Riviera region and a security hardliner, has accused the government of failing in Nice, saying there were not enough police officers. Prime Minister Manuel Valls said there were no failures.
A security services expert, who currently works outside France and did not want to give his name, said security officials had “lacked imagination”.
“It would have been easy to use police cars or even rubbish skips (to block access), with the possibility of removing them should there be a need to allow an ambulance to pass,” he said.
Additional reporting by Sophie Sassard, Laurence Frost and Matthias Galante; Writing by Andrew Callus; Editing by John Irish and Pravin Char