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Magazine attackers tracked to region north of Paris

France observes day of mourning for 12 people killed in attack on offices of Charlie Hebdo weekly.
A woman, grasping a symbolic pencil,  is moved to tears as people gather in front of Notre Dame cathedral for a minute of silence in memory of the 12 victims in the January 7, 2015, massacre at the Paris headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Ian Langsdon / EPA / January 8, 2015
A woman, grasping a symbolic pencil, is moved to tears as people gather in front of Notre Dame cathedral for a minute of silence in memory of the 12 victims in the January 7, 2015, massacre at the Paris headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Ian Langsdon / EPA / January 8, 2015

PARIS // French security forces were closing the net last night around two suspects in the terrorist attack on a French magazine’s offices in Paris.

The hunt for the suspects was concentrated in the Aisne department of the Picardy region in the north of France, after a sighting of the men at a petrol station near the town of Villers-Cotterets, 80 kilometres from Paris.

The manager of the petrol station told police the men were armed with rocket launchers and other weapons.

Police say they also found the hijacked getaway vehicle, a Renault Clio, abandoned in the same area.

French special forces and anti-terrorism officers combed the region, while Britain said it would increase security at its ports of entry.

Meanwhile, a woman police officer was shot and killed in a suburb south of Paris while investigating a car accident on Thursday morning. French prosecutors called it an act of terror, heightening fears of further attacks in the city. The gunman in the shooting remained at large Thursday night.

However, the interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said last night that no link had been established between the police officer killed on Thursday and the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Twelve people were killed on Wednesday by masked gunmen at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which had received threats in the past because of its depiction of Islam. Among those killed were two police officers.

Cherif Kouachi, 32, and his brother Said, 34, are on the run from police while a third suspect, 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad, turned himself in to police on Thursday morning after seeing his name in news reports.

The brothers’ photos, names and birth dates were listed on Paris police’s official Twitter account. Police also said that nine people had been detained and questioned in connection with the magazine attack.

Cherif Kouachi had been known to officials as a threat. He was arrested in 2005 for his role in recruiting militants to fight in Iraq, and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was arrested again in 2010 – but not charged – in connection with the failed jailbreak of a mastermind behind the 1995 terrorist bombings in the heart of Paris that killed eight people and injured more than 200.

Said Kouachi’s identification card was found in the getaway car that was found abandoned in northern Paris about four kilometres from the magazine’s offices, police said.

France remained on high alert as rallies were held in support of the victims – and press freedom. At Notre Dame in Paris’ city centre, President Fancois Hollande joined crowds for a moment of silence for the victims as bells tolled across the city. French flags flew at half mast throughout the country. On Wednesday night, 35,000 people had gathered for a vigil with signs that read “I am Charlie.”

At the Grand Mosque of Paris, Muslim leaders were joined in the moment of silence by France’s head pastors and rabbis from a number of denominations, showing their support.

“Representatives of religions in this country – Judaism, Christianity, the Protestant church, Orthodox, Catholicism, Islam and Buddhism – we all condemn this heinous act that touches our hearts and consciences,” said Francois Clavairoly, president of the Protestant Federation of France.

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque and president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, called on French imams to condemn the tragedy and address it in their Friday prayers.

“The Muslim community is particularly shocked and shaken,” he said.

A young man worshiping at the mosque, who would only give his first name as Mohammed, said the attack had already fuelled anti-Muslim sentiment.

“I can just feel it. It is when events like this happen that France suddenly feels divided,” he said. “Of course we condemn these acts. This is not Islam or the teachings of Islam, yet people confuse these acts as representative of our beliefs.”

Several attacks on mosques were reported throughout France, though nobody was injured, as right-wing politicians declared that the country was “at war” with Islamic fundamentalism.

France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population – more than 5 million out of a population of about 65 million.

The fear of “Islamisation” has found traction, with opinion polls showing the anti-immigration National Front party led by Marine Le Pen would lead in the first round of the 2017 presidential race.

Ms Le Pen called on Thursday to bring back the death penalty in light of the attack.

“Measures need to be implemented to protect our countrymen,” she said.

In a video address to the French public, she branded the shooting “a terrorist attack carried out in the name of radical Islam”.

The attack on Wednesday was seemingly in retaliation for cartoons of the Prophet and critiques of Islam published in the magazine. Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, and four cartoonists well known in France were killed in the attack.

The gunmen had yelled “Allahu akbar”, or “God is greatest,” before fleeing, the Paris prosecutor has said.

The magazine had been attacked in the past – its old offices were destroyed by a petrol bomb in 2011 – and Charbonnier lived under police protection.

A million copies of the magazine will be published next week, according to the Charlie Hebdo’s lawyer, as French media and journalists vowed to ensure the issue would be printed. The weekly circulation is believed to be around 45,000.

Some local Muslim leaders, while denouncing the publication, have strongly condemned the actions of the terrorists.

“I have not agreed with Charlie Hebdo. But a drawing should be fought with a drawing, not with blood and not with hate,” said Hassen Chalghoumi, imam of the Drancy mosque in Paris’s Seine-Saint-Denis suburb. “This act, it is not freedom.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: January 8, 2015 04:00 AM

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