PARIS — French police hunted Thursday for two heavily armed men — one with a terrorism conviction and a history in jihadi networks — in the methodical killing of 12 people at a satirical newspaper that caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. The prime minister announced several overnight arrests and said the possibility of a new attack “is our main concern.”
Tensions in Paris were high as France began a day of national mourning. The most senior security official abandoned a top-level meeting after just 10 minutes to rush to a shooting on the city’s southern edge. A policewoman died and a street sweeper was wounded. The shooter remained at large.
It was not immediately clear if that shooting was linked to the attack the previous day on the newspaper Charlie Hebdo, where two police were among the dead.
Related post: Cartoonists pay tribute to Charlie Hebdo
France’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, said the two suspects in the Charlie Hebdo shootings were known to intelligence services, and the fear that they could carry out another attack “is our main concern.” Valls told RTL radio there had been several arrests overnight; a security official put the arrest total at seven, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
Valls said the suspects were likely being tracked by intelligence services, but “there is no such thing as zero risk.”
At noon, strangers on Paris’ normally bustling subway stared at each other in solidarity as metro trains ground to a halt for one minute of haunting silence. Muslims at the Paris Mosque fell quiet too, a day after the biggest terror attack on French soil in living memory. Catholics listened inside Notre Dame Cathedral as its gargantuan bell tolled, the sound echoing around the Ile de le Cite.
President Francois Hollande ordered flags flown at half-staff, and the Eiffel Tower will switch off its lights and shroud tourists in dark.
Fears have run high in Europe that jihadis trained in warfare abroad would stage attacks at home. The French suspect in a deadly attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium had returned from fighting with extremists in Syria; and the man who rampaged in the south of France in 2012, killing three soldiers and four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse, received paramilitary training in Pakistan.
“France has been struck directly in the heart of its capital, in a place where the spirit of liberty — and thus of resistance — breathed freely,” President Francois Hollande said Thursday. The attack took place nearly midway between France’s Bastille and the enormous Republique plaza.
One of the Charlie Hebdo suspects, Cherif Kouachi, was convicted of terrorism in 2008 for involvement in a network sending radical fighters to Iraq. He and his brother, Said, should be considered “armed and dangerous,” French police said in a bulletin early Thursday, appealing for witnesses after a fruitless search in the city of Reims, in French Champagne country.
A third man, Mourad Hamyd, 18, surrendered at a police station in a small town in the eastern region after learning his name was linked to the attacks in the news and social media, said Paris prosecutor’s spokeswoman Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre. She did not specify his relationship to the Kouachi brothers.
Related reading: Ezra Levant on the Charlie Hebdo shooting
France raised its terror alert system to the maximum and bolstered security with more than 800 extra soldiers to guard media offices, places of worship, transport and other sensitive areas. A nationwide minute of silence was planned for noon.
One witness to Wednesday’s attack said the gunmen were so methodical he at first mistook them for an elite anti-terrorism squad. Then they fired on a police officer.
The masked, black-clad men with assault rifles launched the attack around noon. The publication had long drawn condemnation and threats — it was firebombed in 2011 — for its depictions of Islam, although it also satirized other religions and political figures.
The staff was in an editorial meeting and the gunmen headed straight for the paper’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, widely known by his pen name Charb, killing him and his police bodyguard first, said Christophe Crepin, a police union spokesman.
Shouting “Allahu akbar!” as they fired, the men spoke in fluent, unaccented French as they called out the names of specific employees.
Eight journalists, two police officers, a maintenance worker and a visitor were killed, said prosecutor Francois Molins. He said 11 people were wounded, four of them seriously.
Two gunmen strolled out to a black car waiting below, one of them calmly shooting a wounded police officer in the head as he writhed on the ground, according to video and a man who watched in fear from his home across the street.
“They knew exactly what they had to do and exactly where to shoot. While one kept watch and checked that the traffic was good for them, the other one delivered the final coup de grace,” said the witness, who refused to allow his name to be used because he feared for his safety.
“Hey! We avenged the Prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo,” one of the men shouted in French, according to video shot from a nearby building.
Related reading: Charlie Hedbo and the revenge of the old religion
One police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, said the suspects were linked to a Yemeni terrorist network. Cedric Le Bechec, a witness who encountered the escaping gunmen, quoted the attackers as saying: “You can tell the media that it’s al-Qaida in Yemen.”
After fleeing, the attackers collided with another vehicle, then hijacked another car before disappearing in broad daylight, Molins said.
Among the other dead were cartoonists Georges Wolinski and Berbard Verlhac, better known as Tignous, and Jean Cabut, known as “Cabu.” Also killed was Bernard Maris, an economist who was a contributor to the newspaper and was heard regularly on French radio.
One cartoon, released in this week’s issue and titled “Still No Attacks in France,” had a caricature of a jihadi fighter saying “Just wait — we have until the end of January to present our New Year’s wishes.” Charb was the artist.
In a sombre address to the nation Wednesday night, French President Francois Hollande pledged to hunt down the killers, and pleaded with his compatriots to come together in a time of insecurity and suspicion.
“Let us unite, and we will win,” he said. “Vive la France!”
Thousands of people later jammed the Republique plaza to honour the victims, waving pens and papers reading “Je suis Charlie” — “I am Charlie.” Similar rallies were held in London’s Trafalgar Square as well as Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin and Brussels.
“This is the darkest day of the history of the French press,” said Christophe DeLoire of Reporters Without Borders.
Both al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have repeatedly threatened to attack France, which is conducting airstrikes against extremists in Iraq and fighting Islamic militants in Africa. Charb was specifically threatened in a 2013 edition of the al-Qaida magazine Inspire, which also included an article titled “France the Imbecile Invader.”
Cherif Kouachi, now 32, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after being convicted of terrorism charges in 2008 for helping funnel fighters to Iraq’s insurgency. He said he was outraged at the torture of Iraqi inmates at the U.S. prison at Abu Ghraib near Baghdad and “really believed in the idea” of fighting the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
A tweet from an al-Qaida representative who communicated Wednesday with The Associated Press said the group was not claiming responsibility for the attack, but called it “inspiring.”
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