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IS claims murder of elderly French priest in church attack

Islamic State claims its supporters killed cleric in Normandy church, in what French president described as a 'vile terrorist attack'
A police officer outside the town hall in St Etienne-du-Rouvray. President Hollande said France must 'wage war, by every means' against the Islamic State group (AFP)

Two men claiming to be Islamic State (IS) militants murdered an elderly priest before being "neutralised" by police in an attack on a church in Normandy, northern France on Tuesday.

The men reportedly cut the throat of Jacques Hemel, who was in his eighties, after they took hostages at the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen.

The church was soon surrounded by police, who shot both attackers dead.

Adel Kermiche, 19, was one of two attackers who stormed a Catholic church in the northern town of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray during morning mass, slitting the throat of an 86-year-old priest, Jacques Hamel, and leaving a worshipper with serious injuries, said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.

Five people were inside the church during the attack - three were freed unharmed, and another was seriously injured.

Francois Hollande, the French president, said the men had "claimed to be from Islamic State," and condemned the "vile terrorist attack".

Jacques Hamel

"We are confronted with a group, Daesh, which has declared war on us," Hollande said, using an alternative name for the group.

"We have to wage war, by every means, upholding the law... because we are a democracy."

The incident comes as France remains on high alert nearly two weeks after Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed a truck into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day in the French Riviera city of Nice, killing 84 people and injuring over 300.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed his horror at what he called "a barbaric attack on a church".

"The whole of France and all Catholics are wounded. We will stand together," he wrote on Twitter.

Pope Francis voiced his "pain and horror" at the hostage-taking, according to the Vatican. 

The archbishop of Rouen, Dominique Lebrun, urged all non-believers to join those of the church in "calling to God".

"The Catholic Church can take up no other weapons than prayer and fraternity between men," he said in a statement.

The IS-affiliated news service, Amaq, claimed the attack in a brief statement.

The Nice attack was the third major strike on France in 18 months and was claimed by the Islamic State group.

Two attacks in Germany claimed by the Islamic State group since then have also increased jitters in Europe.

After the attack in Nice, France extended a state of emergency giving police extra powers to carry out searches and place people under house arrest for another six months until January.

It was the fourth time the security measures have been extended since Islamic State group struck Paris in November, killing 130 people at restaurants, a concert hall and the national stadium.

Bitter political feud

The Nice massacre has triggered a bitter political spat over alleged security failings, with the government accused of not doing enough to protect the population.

French far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen wrote on Twitter that the "modus operandi obviously makes us fear a new attack from terrorist Islamists".

Valls had warned earlier in the week that the country would face more attacks as it struggled to handle militants returning from fighting in the Middle East and those radicalised at home.

France has been concerned about the threat against churches ever since a foiled plot in the Paris suburb of Villejuif in April last year.

Sid Ahmed Ghlam, a 24-year-old Algerian IT student, was arrested in Paris on suspicion of killing a woman who was found shot dead in the passenger seat of her car, and of planning an attack on a church. 

Prosecutors say they found documents about al-Qaeda and IS at his home, and that he had been in touch with a suspected militant in Syria about an attack on a church.

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