MSAKEN, Tunisia (Reuters) - A day after Mohamed Bouhlel drove a truck into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, France on Thursday, killing at least 84 people, his relatives and former neighbors from his Tunisian hometown expressed shock and shame at the actions of a former resident of a community with deep ties to France.
Msaken, a commercial town about 120 km (75 miles) south of Tunis, has strong links to Nice through emigration. It has a population of more than 100,000, and has not struggled economically as much as some other Tunisian towns partly thanks to remittances from France. Cars with French number plates are a common sight.
Bouhlel left in 2005, last returning for a sister’s wedding four years ago, people who knew him said.
The 31-year-old was known to French police because of a history of threats, violence and theft. [nL8N1A13YQ] In Tunisia, family members and residents remembered him as sporty, distant, and not interested in religion.
“Mohamed was a very normal guy,” said Hamadi Bouhlel, a cousin. “He did sports regularly, fitness training, and he was very arrogant. He didn’t talk with all the other young guys in the neighborhood.”
Tunisia, a former French colony, has struggled with Islamist extremism since the uprising that toppled Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, with many young Tunisians leaving to fight abroad.
Bouhlel, however, was not someone suspected by French or Tunisian authorities as having been radicalized, officials in both countries said. [nL8N1A10SO]
A former neighbor who only gave his first name, Mansour, said Bouhlel did not go to the mosque and did not pray.
“He is from a large, normal family, not extremist at all,” he said. “They’re like the rest of us.”
Ibrahim Bouhlel, a nephew, said his uncle never had money problems, and had told relatives days ago that he was planning a trip back to Tunisia for a family party.
Another ex-neighbor who had returned from Nice for a summer vacation and gave his name as Karim, said the attack felt like a “big betrayal.”
“Thousands of people from Msaken live in Nice and make their living there. Is it normal for the country that gives us all that to be paid back in this way on their national holiday?”
Msaken is just 10 km (six miles) outside the coastal city of Sousse, where on June 23, 2015, a gunman killed 38 people, mostly British holidaymakers, on a beach. Three months earlier, gunmen killed 21 people in the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, and the attacks have had a crushing impact on Tunisia’s tourism sector.
Tunisia’s government issued a statement condemning the Nice attack “in the strongest possible terms,” pledging to support France in its efforts to protect citizens and visitors.
Three Tunisian nationals were among those killed in Nice, with three others missing and several more wounded, Tunisia’s ambassador to France said.
“It’s a shock for all of us,” said Msaken resident Mounir Ben Salem, as he watched TV coverage from Nice in a cafe. “It’s shameful. This act destroys even further the image of Tunisia, which has become linked to the jihadists.”
Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by James Dalgleish