Two armed men who took six people hostage including a priest and two nuns in a church in northern France have been shot dead, a police source has said.
The French Catholic newspaper La Croix said that the priest, who has been named as Father Jacques Hamel, 84, (pictured) had his throat cut by the hostage takers. The French Interior Ministry also said that one of the parishioners was fighting for his life after the siege. It is believed that the men were carrying knives. It is unclear at this stage what their motives were.
The two men - yet to be identified - entered the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, a suburb south-east of the city of Rouen, in Normandy, at 10am local time (0900 BST) through a back entrance while morning Mass was being celebrated. The assailants took the priest, two nuns and the congregation hostage. Another nun managed to escape and raise the alarm.
The nun - who did not want to be named told Le Figaro newspaper: "They entered brusquely and took over. They spoke in Arabic. I saw a knife. I left just when they started to attack Fr Jacques. I don't even know if they realised that I was leaving."
It is believed that Fr Hamel, who was the assistant parish priest, was killed before police moved to end the siege. The siege ended after less than an hour when anti-terror police confronted the two hostage takers in a courtyard outside the church. At least one of the suspects had a handgun and the police were fired upon before returning fire and shooting both suspects. One is dead while another one is, according to French media reports, seriously wounded. One of the policemen was shot in the calf but his condition is not thought to be life threatening.
French President François Hollande, the Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and the president of the region, Hervé Morin arrived at the scene around 1pm local time, and spoke to emergency services and senior security personnel.
Fr Hamel, according to the diocese of Rouen, was born in Darnétal, near Rouen. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1958 and celebrated his Golden Jubilee in 2008. The Archbishop of Rouen Dominique Lebrun, who was in Krakow for World Youth Day, confirmed that he will be returning to Rouen immediately and is due to arrive in the parish this evening.
In a statement Lebrun said: "The Vicar General, Fr Philippe Maheut arrived at the scene very soon after this incident. This evening I will be in my diocese around the families and the parish community who are all very shocked.
"I call out to God, with all people of good will. I dare to invite non-believers to unite in this call! With the youth of the World Youth Days, we pray in the same manner as we prayed around the tomb of Father Popieluszko in Warsaw – assassinated under the communist regime.
"The Catholic Church needs no other weapons than those of prayer and brotherhood among men. I leave behind (in Krakow) many thousands of young people who are the future of humanity, and the Truth. I beg of them not to give in to the ways of violence and instead become apostles of love for the future of civilisation."
Mr Mohammed Shafiq, chief Executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a leading Muslim organisation in the UK condemned the attacks. He said: "The attack on a Church is Normandy and brutal murder of a Priest is condemned in the strongest terms and we stand with our Christian brothers and sisters.
"Whilst it is too early to speculate about the circumstances of this attack we know Europe faces threats on a daily basis from ISIS and their supporters and from far right extremism. They are two cheeks of the same backside, they want divided communities and we must not allow them to succeed.
"Places of worship are sacred and in Islam it is forbidden to see such attacks and the brutal killing of a priest. An attack as we saw today in Normandy is an attack against all faiths and we stand together in solidarity, love and unity. The attack on a church is Normandy and brutal murder of a priest is condemned in the strongest terms and we stand with our Christian brothers and sisters.
Meanwhile Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, warned against the ghettoisation of migrants. France had “unfortunately” failed to integrate its Muslim migrants who now lived in ghettoes a fact that Austria should take to heart and make every effort to nip any such development in the bud, Schönborn told Kathpress in Krakow where he is taking part in WYD. Commenting on what he called “refugee terrorism” in Germany in the past week, Schönborn again referred to France. Many people in France now regretted the abolition of compulsory military service, he said. Serving in the army "encouraged migrants to come to terms with the state in which they were living" and was therefore a good thing in his eyes.
French prime minister Manuel Valls tweeted that "the whole of France and all Catholics are bruised" by the atrocity. But that "we will come together".
A Vatican spokesman said that the siege at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, which is about 75 miles north-west of Paris, was “terrible news, which unfortunately adds to a series of [recent] violent acts” creating “immense pain and worry”.
France continues to be on high alert since the Bastille Day attack in Nice earlier this month, when an attacker drove a lorry along the promenade ploughing into crowds who had gathered to enjoy the celebration, killing more than 84 people and injuring many more.
France's National Assembly last week voted to extend a state of emergency for a further six months. The state was put in place after terror attacks across the capital Paris in November killed 130 people.