PARIS (Reuters) - A French soldier patrolling a business neighborhood west of Paris was stabbed in the neck and injured on Saturday by a man who fled the scene and is being sought by police, President Francois Hollande said.
The 23-year-old was patrolling in uniform with two other soldiers as part of France’s Vigipirate anti-terror surveillance plan when he was approached from behind around 6 p.m. and attacked with a knife or a box-cutter.
A police union spokesman said surveillance footage of the attacker showed him as tall and bearded, aged about 35, possibly of North African origin and wearing a white Arab-style tunic.
Hollande, in the Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa, commented on the stabbing to say police were hunting for the attacker but did not provide any details about his identity or any possible motivation for the attack.
“We still don’t know the exact circumstances of the attack or the identity of the attacker, but we are exploring all options,” Hollande told journalists.
Three days after a British soldier was killed in a London street by two men who said they acted to avenge violence against Muslims, the attack near Paris raised questions about a possible copycat attempt to kill a French soldier.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls noted the similarity in an interview on France 2 TV saying the attacker was clearly trying to murder his victim, but he added that it was too early to offer any theories.
“Let’s be prudent for now,” Valls said of the attacker’s identity and motivations. “Everything is being done to arrest this individual.”
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told journalists near the site of the attack: “The soldier was attacked because he is a soldier.”
Pierre-Andre Peyvel, police prefect for the Hauts-de-Seine area west of Paris, said the soldier had lost a considerable amount of blood but would survive, and was being treated in a nearby military hospital. He was not named.
Witnesses near the commuter train station where the attack occurred gave conflicting descriptions of the fleeing suspect. One asserted on TV that he saw two men fleeing, while another said the scene was too confused to tell.
Peyvel declined to confirm or deny any description and said further details would be forthcoming. A source said police would broadcast the man’s likeness if no arrest was made soon.
France is on high alert for attacks by Islamist militants following its military intervention in Mali in January, which prompted threats against French interests from AQIM, the North African wing of al Qaeda.
The latest warning was published on YouTube a few weeks before armed gunmen this week attacked a military base and a French uranium extraction site in the central African state of Niger, killing 24 soldiers and one civilian.
Valls said France would retain its current terror alert level at “red, reinforced”, one step down from “scarlet”, which is only activated in case of a serious and confirmed attack.
Reporting by Nick Vinocur, Nicolas Bertin and Sunaina Karkarey; Writing by Nick Vinocur; Editing by Andrew Roche and Mike Collett-White