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Normandy attacker ‘was on probation and tried to get to Syria twice’, officials say

Flowers, candles and messages are placed on the city hall entrance close to the home of Fr Jacques Hamel (AP)

A priest has been killed in an Islamist attack on a church near Rouen in northern France.

Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen released a statement in which he confirmed that Fr Jacques Hamel, 85, died in the attack on the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray by two armed men, who were both later shot dead by police.

They entered the building during Mass, taking the priest and a number of other people, including two nuns, hostage.

French officials have said that one of the attackers suspected of Fr Hamel’s murder was on probation and wearing a surveillance tag at the time of the attack. Prosecutor Francois Molins named Adel Kermiche, 19, as the suspect. He was arrested twice last year trying to reach Syria.

Molins told reporters that Kermiche’s electronic surveillance bracelet was deactivated for a few hours every morning, corresponding with the time of the attack.

He said Kermiche was arrested in Germany in March 2015 trying to join extremists in Syria using his brother’s ID, and then was arrested in Turkey two months later using a cousin’s ID.

Molins also said Kermiche and his fellow attacker had fake explosives when they entered the church and used nuns as human shields. He said they cried “Allahu akbar” during the attack.

Molins added that a minor has been detained in the investigation, who is believed to be a 16-year-old younger brother of someone wanted by police for trying to go to Syria or Iraq in 2015.

ISIS have claimed the attack was carried out by two “soldiers” from the group, while French President Francois Hollande called it a “vile terrorist attack” and said it’s another sign that France is at war with ISIS, which has claimed a string of attacks on France.

“I cry out to God with all men of good will. I would invite non-believers to join in the cry,” Archbishop Lebrun, who is returning to France from World Youth Day in Krakow, said in his statement.

“The Catholic Church cannot take weapons other than those of prayer and brotherhood among men. I leave here hundreds of young people who are the future of humanity, the true ones. I ask them not to give in to the violence and become apostles of the civilization of love.”

According to reports, the priest died after his throat was cut. Another person inside the church was seriously injured, Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said.

It was the first known attack inside a French church in recent times. One was targeted last year, but the attack never was carried out. The anti-terrorism division of the Paris prosecutor’s office immediately opened an investigation.

Reuters reported that between between four and six people, including the priest and two nuns, were being held at the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said Pope Francis has been informed and expresses pain and horror at this “absurd violence”, Catholic News Service reports.

“We are particularly shocked that this horrible violence occurred in a church, a sacred place where love of God is proclaimed,” Fr Lombardi said.

French President Francois Hollande and Interior Minister Bernard Cazenevue is en route to the town of Saint-Etienne-en-Rouvray where the hostage-taking took place.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has taken to Twitter to condemn the “barbaric attack”.

“The whole of France and all Catholics are wounded. We will stand together,” he said.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, also writing on Twitter, said he was “deeply shocked, horrified and scandalised” by the attack.

“How many deaths for European governments to understand the situation in the West?” he wrote.

“I pray for the murdered priest, I pray for his executioners, I pray for France. God come to our aid.”

France is currently on high alert after an attack in Nice on Bastille Day — July 14 — that killed 84 people and a string of deadly attacks last year claimed by ISIS that killed 147 others. France is also under a state of emergency and has extra police presence after the Nice attack, where man barreled his truck down the city’s famed Promenade des Anglais, mowing down holiday crowds.

ISIS extremists have urged followers to attack French churches and the group is believed to have planned at least one church attack earlier.

In April 2015, an Algerian student who was arrested after shooting himself in the leg was found with heavy weapons, bulletproof vests and documents linked to ISIS. He is charged with killing a young woman inside her car the same day. According to French authorities, the suspect, Sid Ahmed Ghlam, was sent by the Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud to attack a church in Villejuif, just outside of Paris.

A cell directed by Abaaoud later carried out the November 13 attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and the March 22 attacks in Brussels that killed 32 people.