CAIRO — A member of al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen says the group directed the attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris “as revenge for the honour” of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
The member on Friday provided to The Associated Press a statement in English saying “the leadership of AQAP directed the operations and they have chosen their target carefully.”
He says the attack was in line with warnings from the late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to the West about “the consequences of the persistence in the blasphemy against Muslim sanctities.” He said the group has delayed its declaration of responsibility for “security reasons.”
He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the group’s regulations.
The statement Friday came after security forces ended a three-day terror spree around Paris, killing the two al-Qaida-linked brothers suspected of staging a murderous rampage at a satirical newspaper and an associate who seized a kosher supermarket to try to help them escape.
The worst terrorist attacks France has seen in decades left at least 20 people dead, including the three gunmen. The fate of a fourth suspect — a female accomplice of the market attacker — remained unclear.
At least seven people were killed Friday — the three hostage-takers and at least four hostages — a policewoman was killed Thursday and 12 people were massacred in the Paris newspaper attack Wednesday. Sixteen hostages were freed Friday, one from the printing plant where the two brothers were holed up and 15 others from the Paris grocery store.
Paris shut down a famed Jewish neighbourhood amid fears that a wider terror cell might launch further attacks.
French President Francois Hollande urged his nation to remain united and alert. Calling the grocery attack “a terrifying anti-Semitic act,” he said the attackers were “fanatics who have nothing to do with the Islamic religion.”
“The threats facing France are not finished,” he said. “We must be vigilant.”
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By Friday afternoon, explosions and gunshots rang out and white smoke rose up outside a printing plant in Dammartin-en-Goele, northeast of Paris, where brothers Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34, had holed up with a hostage.
Security forces had surrounded the building for most of the day. After the explosions, a police SWAT forces were seen on the roof of the building and a police helicopter landed nearby it.
The gunman at the grocery store, identified as Amedy Coulibaly, had earlier threatened to kill his hostages if French authorities launched an assault on the two brothers, a police official said. The two sets of hostage-takers know each other, said the official.
Security forces stormed the Paris grocery near the Porte de Vincennes neighbourhood minutes after news of clashes at the printing plant. Moments later, several people were seen being led out of the store.
Trying to fend off further attacks, the Paris mayor’s office shut down all shops along Rosiers Street in the city’s famed Marais neighbourhood in the heart of the tourist district. Hours before the Jewish Sabbath, the street is usually crowded with shoppers — French Jews and tourists alike. The street is also only a kilometre (a half mile) away from Charlie Hebdo’s offices.
The gunman had burst shooting into the kosher store just a few hours before the Jewish Sabbath began, declaring “You know who I am,” the official recounted. The attack came before sundown when the store was crowded with shoppers. Several wounded people were able to flee, police said.
Paris police released photos of Coulibaly, also believed responsible for the roadside killing of a Paris policewoman, and one of a second suspect, a woman named Hayet Boumddiene, who they said was his accomplice.
About 100 students were placed under lockdown in schools nearby and the highway ringing Paris was closed.
Hours before and 40 kilometres (25 miles) away , a convoy of police trucks, helicopters and ambulances streamed toward Dammartin-en-Goele, a small industrial town near Charles de Gaulle airport, to seize the Charlie Hebdo suspects, who had hijacked a car in a nearby town after more than two days on the run.
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“They said they want to die as martyrs,” Yves Albarello, a local lawmaker inside the command post, told French television station i-Tele.
With the brothers trapped, Charles de Gaulle closed two runways to arrivals to avoid interfering in the standoff or endangering planes.
Both brothers had ties to terrorist networks. Cherif Kouachi was convicted of terrorism charges in 2008 for ties to a network sending jihadis to fight U.S. forces in Iraq.
A Yemeni security official said his brother, Said, is suspected of having fought for al-Qaida in Yemen. Another senior security official said Said was in Yemen until 2012. Both officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of an ongoing investigation into Kouachi’s stay in Yemen.
Both brothers were also on the U.S. no-fly list, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said.
Nine people, members of the brothers’ entourage, have been detained for questioning in several regions.
The satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo had long drawn threats for its depictions of Islam, although it also satirized other religions and political figures. The weekly paper had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad, and a sketch of Islamic State’s leader was the last tweet sent out by the irreverent newspaper, minutes before the attack.
Eight journalists, two police officers, a maintenance worker and a visitor were killed in the newspaper attack, including the paper’s editor. Charlie Hebdo plans a special edition next week, produced in the offices of another paper.
Authorities around Europe have warned of the threat posed by the return of Western jihadis trained in warfare. France counts at least 1,200 citizens in the war zone in Syria — headed there, returned or dead. Both the Islamic State group and al-Qaida have threatened France, home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim population.
Paul Wells spoke to Breakfast Television this morning as news was developing: