PARIS – An assailant wielding a hammer attacked Paris police who were guarding Notre Dame Cathedral on Tuesday, crying "This is for Syria!" before being shot and wounded by officers outside one of France's most popular tourist sites.
At least 600 people were blocked inside the iconic 12th century church while police first secured the streets around it and then combed the pews while visitors sat with their hands raised. Others fled in panic from the sprawling esplanade outside the cathedral.
Among the several hundred people ordered to remain inside the cathedral was a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and University of North Florida professor, Nancy Soderberg. She said she was with her 16-year-old niece, admiring the church's stained glass windows, when a French announcement came on urging those inside to stay calm as police dealt with an incident outside.
"The police came in and said, 'We're going to search for accomplices,' and 'Put your hands up.' That's when you could hear a pin drop. Everyone was nervous because they thought maybe one of the attackers was inside the church. Just, no one knew. It was very scary. Thankfully, we were all safe. And, and eventually, they said everything was safe and they said the Lord's Prayer in both French and English, which calmed everyone down," Soderberg told News4Jax by phone.
She said time seemed to go by very slowly while they waited inside Notre Dame.
"You always think you're not going to be the one to be caught up in it somehow, and then when it happens, it's like a bad dream," Soderberg said. "It's almost in slow motion. You can't believe it's happening."
The assault was the latest act of violence targeting security forces at high-profile sites in France, which remains under a state of emergency after a string of Islamic extremist attacks.
No group immediately claimed responsibility, but police searching a residence linked to the attacker in the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise found a declaration of allegiance to the Islamic State group, according to the Paris prosecutor's office.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told reporters that a police officer in a three-person patrol was lightly wounded in the attack, and the assailant was shot and wounded by a fellow officer. The attacker's condition was being evaluated.
"A person came up behind the police officers, armed with a hammer, and started to hit the police officer," he said.
The man yelled, "This is for Syria," Collomb said, adding that the attacker appeared to have acted alone.
A hammer and kitchen knives were found on the assailant, as well as a student identity card indicating he was from Algeria, Collomb said. He said authorities were working to verify the card's authenticity.
"We have passed from a very sophisticated terrorism to a terrorism where any instrument can be used for attacks," the interior minister said.
The head of the Municipal Police Defense Union, Cedric Michel, said the attacker was about 40 years old. A police official from another union confirmed the age of 40. The second official asked to remain anonymous to discuss the investigation.
The incident happened around 4:20 p.m. A large number of police cars descended on the Ile de Cite island in the Seine River, where the celebrated cathedral is located.
Authorities told people to stay away from the area and some took refuge inside the cathedral. People inside Notre Dame, the nearby Sainte-Chapelle chapel noted for its stained glass and area bars and cafes were told to stay inside while the police operation was underway.
They were being released Tuesday evening one by one after careful police searches.
Witnesses described a dramatic police operation in the tourist-filled area.
Lawrence Langner, a 73-year-old American visiting the neighborhood just across the Seine from the cathedral, told The Associated Press that he suddenly heard a commotion and two detonations like gunshots.
Journalist David Metreau, who said his office overlooks the square that fronts Notre Dame, tweeted that there were two blasts that sounded like shots. Looking down from his office, he saw a man inert on the square.
"The police didn't seem interested in him at the beginning," Metreau said. "I thought he was dead."
Officers then checked the man's pulse, while medics eventually came and took him away on a stretcher.
Soderberg said those inside the cathedral remained calm and orderly throughout, despite not knowing what was happening. "Everyone was very quiet and very scared," she said, when police came in to check the cathedral's pews row by row.
"We will remember this for the rest of our lives," she said. "Now everyone just wants to go home."
She tweeted a photo from inside the cathedral showing those locked inside putting their arms in the air as instructed by police.
"I didn't really expect to have the kind of reaction I did to that photo, but it's just been overwhelming how often it's been retweeted and how many calls I got. It's powerful," Soderberg told News4Jax. "It makes you realize you have a community of friends and family who are affected by these things."
The attack came the day before new President Emmanuel Macron unveils his first efforts against terrorism, which Collomb called the president's top priority.
Paris remains under high security after a string of Islamic extremist attacks in recent years, including several targeting police officers and security personnel.
In April, an attacker opened fire on a police van on Paris' Champs Elysees, killing one and gravely wounding two others. The attacker was shot dead by police.
The incident recalled two other attacks on soldiers who were providing security at prominent locations around Paris, one at the Louvre museum in February and one at Orly Airport in March.