PARIS — In what was described as a potential terrorist attack, a knife-wielding man killed two people and wounded five others on Saturday morning in a town in southern France with only a few shops open under a national lockdown to stem the coronavirus pandemic.
The assailant randomly attacked bystanders on the street, first slitting the throat of a man in his 40s in front of his companion and his son, in the center of Romans-sur-Isère, just south of Lyon, according to the French authorities and news media.
He then attacked two workers and a customer inside a tobacco store before heading to a butcher’s shop.
The suspect, a 33-year-old man of Sudanese origin, was arrested by the police as he was “found on his knees on the sidewalk while praying in Arabic,’’ said the country’s antiterrorism prosecutor’s office, which is handling the investigation into the attack.
At the man’s home, investigators found religious writings in which the author complained of living in a “country of infidels,’’ the prosecutors said in a statement.
An acquaintance of the man was also arrested in connection with the attacks, the prosecutors said.
The suspect — who the French news media said was an asylum-seeker from Sudan — was not immediately identified by name.
The attacks took place about 11 a.m. local time outside a bakery and other shops. Witnesses said that the suspect yelled, “Allahu akbar!’’ as he lunged at his victims, according to France Bleu.
During a visit to the town on Saturday afternoon, Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, indicated that the authorities believed the attack had been terrorist-related, saying that “a man undertook a terrorist path by killing two people.”
President Emmanuel Macron vowed that “light would be shed on this odious act which casts a shadow on our country, which has already been severely tested in recent weeks.”
The attack occurred on the 19th day of a nationwide lockdown to check the coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 83,000 and killed 6,500 in France, including fatalities both in hospitals and retirement homes. France is the hardest-hit European nation after Italy and Spain.
The center of Romans-sur-Isère would almost certainly have had more people on a normal Saturday spring morning. Under the lockdown, people are allowed to leave their homes only to do certain things and must fill out a form to justify their movements. Essential businesses — like supermarkets, bakeries and butcher’s and cheese stores — remain open, but people must shop alone.
Because of the town’s proximity to Italy, the authorities have also imposed a curfew forbidding people from going outside between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Last year, France recorded the highest number of asylum-seekers in Europe, most of them from Afghanistan, Albania and sub-Saharan Africa. Many came to France seeking asylum after having had their application rejected in another country of the European Union.
With insufficient government housing, many asylum-seekers, especially single men, are squatting in abandoned buildings in conditions made increasingly precarious by the global pandemic.