French minister criticized over Nice attack police claims

PARIS (AP) — France’s interior minister acknowledged Thursday that there were no national police stationed at the entrance to the pedestrianized walkway in Nice during the Bastille Day truck attack that killed 84 people.

Bernard Cazeneuve’s clarification comes as a newspaper accused authorities of lacking transparency over their handling of the massacre.

In what represents backtracking from previous claims, Cazeneuve said only local police, who are more lightly armed, were guarding the entrance when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a 19-metric ton (20-ton) truck onto the sidewalk.

Cazeneuve initially said “national police were present and very present on the Promenade des Anglais” and suggested that their cars were blocking the walkway entrance, in a speech two days after the July 14 attack.

Cazeneuve launched an internal police investigation into the handling of the attack shortly after Thursday’s backtrack, in a move seen aimed to diffuse criticism.

President Francois Hollande said the conclusions of the investigation will be known next week, speaking from Dublin where he was meeting with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny about the British decision to leave the European Union.

Hollande said that any police “shortfalls” will be carefully addressed, but defended French authorities against the media attacks.

“There’s no room for polemics, there’s only room for transparency,” he said. “The necessary, serious preparations had been made for the July 14 festivities.”

His comments come after French newspaper Liberation said Cazeneuve lied about the whereabouts of the national police officers and cars, and accused authorities of lacking transparency.

Using witness statements and photos in its Thursday edition, Liberation showed that only one local police car was stationed at the entrance to the walkway.

The paper quotes local Nice police officer Yves Bergerat, who said that guns and bullets of the local force aren’t even equipped “to puncture the tires,” let alone shatter the windshield of a truck that size.

In a statement, Cazeneuve accused the paper of conspiracy theories and maintains that several “heroic” national police — who killed the attacker after an exchange of fire — were stationed further down the promenade.

The criticism comes as France’s National Assembly finalized the extension of the state of emergency, a security measure that’s been in place since the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that left 130 dead and were claimed by the Islamic State group.

Five suspects held in custody in relation to the Nice attack are being handed to investigating judges in Paris on Thursday. They were expected to file preliminary charges against them. French authorities have been looking for possible accomplices to Bouhlel.