A priest has died from a slashed throat after two knifemen burst into a church as he celebrated Mass, in what appears to be the latest in a string of terror attacks in France.
Two men, believed to be the assailants, held members of the congregation hostage for an hour before being shot dead by police after emerging on to the courtyard of the church in Normandy, according to local reports.
French newspapers suggested that the dead man was 92 years old and had served the community of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, south of Rouen, for decades.
Police sources were quoted as saying that at least one of the two hostage-takers was bearded and was wearing a skullcap of the kind worn by some Muslims.
French president Francois Hollande and interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve are on their way to the scene.
The French government said one hostage was killed and another seriously injured.
One member of the congregation – made up of two nuns and two worshippers – was said to be seriously injured.
A spokesman for the ministry of the interior, Pierre-Henry Brandet, confirmed that the priest was dead and said another hostage was “between life and death”.
Mr Brandet told French TV channel BFMTV: “The two hostage-takers came out of the church armed and it was at that point that they were neutralised by the police.”
The hostage-takers entered the church armed with knives shortly before 10am local time (9am Irish time), said French media
As the situation developed, officers from the elite anti-terrorist Raid squad were called in to assist local police. A number of shots were heard over a period of around 15 seconds as the incident came to an end around 40 minutes later.
Anti-terrorist authorities in Paris have opened an inquiry into the hostage-taking.
Eulalie Garcia, who works in a beauty parlour, is on the same road as the church, and told reporters that she knew the 92-year-old priest, who had taught her the catechism as a young girl.
“My family has lived here for 35 years and we have always known him,” she said. “He was someone who was treasured by the community. He was very discreet and didn’t like to draw attention to himself.”
She said she was very shocked by the death of the priest, who lived opposite his church. “It can happen to anyone,” she said.
The area around the church remained cordoned off and the old town was out of bounds.
French newspaper Le Figaro reported that the church was suspected to have been on a list of Catholic places of worship in the area around Paris drawn up as possible targets by Sid Ahmed Ghlam, an Algerian student arrested last year on suspicion of murdering a mother-of-one during a botched attempt to attack a church in Villejuif.
In an impromptu press conference at the scene, Mr Brandet said that a careful investigation of the church building was being conducted by anti-terrorist officers, using sniffer dogs to ensure that no bombs had been left behind by the hostage-takers as booby-traps.
The scene was being investigated by forensic officers, in an operation which was expected to last throughout the day, he said.
Mr Brandet said: “I will not talk about the motives of these individuals.
“I cannot tell you more about the persons who have been seriously injured and who have been assassinated, for the simple reason that investigations are ongoing and the explosive sniffer dogs are carrying out their work.
“We face a dramatic situation that we have to face up to once again, less than two weeks following the Nice tragedy.”
Mr Brandet was unable to say whether the hostage-takers had firearms.
“The investigation will continue throughout the day,” he said.
“We are at the start of the operation. The priority was to make sure we got the assailants and rescued as many hostages as possible.
“Unfortunately the toll has been extremely high. One person was assassinated and another was seriously injured.”
French prime minister Manuel Valls said in a message on Twitter: “Horror in the face of the barbaric attack on a church in Seine-Maritime. All of France and all Catholics are bruised. We stand together.”