France priest killer was 'Syria obsessed time-bomb'

Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray (France) (AFP) - One of the assailants who slit the throat of an elderly French priest was obsessed with going to Syria to fight the regime and had threatened to attack churches, neighbours and acquaintances said.

Adel Kermiche, 19, had been known to the French authorities before Tuesday's shock attack in a Normandy church and was described by one acquaintance as a "time bomb".

Kermiche and an unidentified accomplice stormed the centuries-old stone church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, taking priest Jacques Hamel hostage along with three nuns and two worshippers before slitting the elderly cleric's throat.

He lived in his parents' modest home -- less than two kilometres (a mile) from the church -- where he spent much of the day under house arrest, fitted with an electronic tag while awaiting trial for alleged links to terror.

A family member had raised the alarm after Kermiche went missing destined for war-torn Syria in March 2015.

German authorities arrested him shortly afterwards as he attempted to transit the country using his brother's identity.

He was returned to France where he was detained on March 23 last year for "criminal association in connection with terrorism" and preparing a terrorist act. He was released on bail but banned from leaving the Seine-Maritime region of northern France.

Six weeks later he fled the family home once again and was ultimately traced to Turkey where he was detained on May 13 last year.

He was arrested on his return to France and remanded in custody before being released on bail under strict house arrest conditions as he awaited trial.

"We knew he wanted to go to Syria," said a 60-year-old neighbour of the assailant's family, who added that he "never saw him go to the mosque" that the family attended.

"He never spoke to us," said the neighbour.

"The last time I saw him was on Friday. He was playing football in his garden."

- 'Hyperactive child' -

One of Kermiche's acquaintances, a youngster from the Saint-Etienne area, told Le Parisien newspaper that he was a "hyperactive child" who was excluded from school at the age of 12 due to "behaviour issues" -- adding that he was a "time bomb".

"He only spoke about Syria, and his dream of killing Bashar (al-Assad's) soldiers," the youth said.

"He was the youngest and had psychological problems," said Annie Geslin, who worked with Adel's mother in a family association for many years.

"He was a fragile young person," said Geslin, who had come to the family home to offer her support only to find it deserted after police searched it on Tuesday.

"His family gave him all their love to prevent their child from going astray," she said. "But they did not manage to get their son back to more normal behaviour."

French daily Le Monde reported that Kermiche had been monitored from the age of six and hospitalised on several occasions in his teenage years -- including 15 days in a specialist psychiatric unit.

Another of the town's residents, a teenager who said he knew the attacker, told RTL radio he was not surprised by what happened Tuesday.

"He talked about it all the time... He spoke about Islam, that he was going to do stuff like that. He told me two months ago, 'I'm going to do a church.' I didn't believe him. He said a lot of things," said the teenager.

Francis Da Silva, 35, who manages the neighbourhood's small supermarket, knew Kermiche since he was little.

"He wasn't Mother Theresa but he wasn't a juvenile delinquent either," he said, adding that Kermiche "partied and bought alcohol."

If he saw the youth again, "I'd reconvert him to Jack Daniels," Da Silva joked.

Police shot dead both attackers after negotiations failed and they ran toward officers shouting "Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)", with one of them carrying a handgun.

Another hostage suffered serious knife wounds to the throat and the others escaped unharmed.