Paris | French security forces were desperately hunting today two brothers suspected of gunning down 12 people in an Islamist attack on a satirical weekly, as a stunned and outraged France mourned the victims. The massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine yesterday triggered poignant and spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity around the world and more than 100,000 poured onto the streets of France.
Shocked people from Moscow to Washington rallied in their tens of thousands under the banner I am Charlie, in support of press freedom and the controversial Charlie Hebdo magazine that has repeatedly lampooned the Prophet Mohammed. As fear spread after the country’s bloodiest attack in half a century, several other incidents rocked the jittery nation, although it was not clear whether they were linked to yesterday’s attack.
A gunman shot dead a policewoman and wounded a city employee with an automatic rifle just to the south of Paris and there was an explosion at a kebab shop in eastern France, with no casualties immediately reported. Two Muslim places of worship were fired at in the wake of yesterday’s attacks, prosecutors said.
Declaring today a national day of mourning – only the fifth in the last 50 years – President Francois Hollande called the bloodbath an act of exceptional barbarity and undoubtedly a terrorist attack. But 24 hours after the brazen daylight assault, the masked, black-clad gunmen – who shouted Allahu akbar (God is greatest) while killing some of France’s most outspoken journalists as well as two policemen – were still on the loose.
Police issued arrest warrants for Cherif Kouachi, 32, a known jihadist convicted in 2008 for involvement in a network sending fighters to Iraq, and his 34-year-old brother Said. Both were born in Paris. The two men were likely to be armed and dangerous, authorities warned. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said seven people had been detained in the hunt for the brothers, and a judicial source who refused to be named added these were men and women close to the suspects.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, meanwhile, told French radio the two suspects were known to intelligence services and were no doubt being followed before yesterday’s attack. The frantic manhunt stretched into the night with search- and-seizure operations in Strasbourg and towns near Paris, while in northeastern Reims, commandos raided a building later scoured by white-clad forensic police.
Hamyd Mourad, 18, suspected of being an accomplice in the attack, handed himself in, with police sources saying he had seen his name circulating on social media. Hollande ordered flags to fly at half-mast for three days in France and convened an emergency cabinet meeting. A minute’s silence will be observed across the country at midday, after which the bells of Paris’s famous Notre Dame cathedral will sound out across the capital.
Nothing can divide us, nothing should separate us. Freedom will always be stronger than barbarity, said the president, calling for national unity. As a sign of this unity, Hollande invited arch-rival and opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy to the Elysee Palace, his first visit since losing power in 2012.
Even before the attack, France, home to Europe’s biggest Muslim population, was on high alert like many countries that have seen citizens leave to fight alongside the radical Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Several terrorist attacks had been foiled in recent weeks, Hollande said.
At around 11:30 am yesterday, the killers stormed the central Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo during an editorial meeting and picked off some of France’s best-known cartoonists in cold, military-style executions. Outside the building, chilling amateur video footage showed the attackers calmly approaching a wounded policeman as he lay on the pavement and then shooting him at close range.
Many witnesses said the scene was like a movie and some described rivers of blood flowing in the streets of the City of Light. More than 100,000 people across France poured out into the streets, many brandishing jesuischarlie banners and holding aloft pens to voice support for freedom of expression. Charlie Hebdo has long provoked controversy, mocking many religions with provocative drawings, a practice that has outraged some Muslims whose religion forbids depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.
US President Barack Obama led the global condemnation of what he called a cowardly, evil assault. Pope Francis described it as a horrible attack saying such violence, whatever the motivation, is abominable, it is never justified.
Charlie Hebdo gained notoriety in February 2006 when it reprinted cartoons of the Prophet that had originally appeared in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. Its offices were fire-bombed in November 2011 when it published a cartoon of the Prophet. Even being dragged to court under anti-racism laws did not stop the publication, which in September 2012 again drew the Prophet.
Editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb, was among those killed, along with the police officer assigned to protect him. Other victims included Jean Cabut, known across France as Cabu, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac, better known as Tignous.
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