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More than 1 million take part in Paris unity rally

Demonstrations in France and around the world after the terror attacks last week.
People gather for the unity rally on January 11 in Paris in tribute to the 17 victims of a three-day killing spree by homegrown terrorists. AFP Photo
People gather for the unity rally on January 11 in Paris in tribute to the 17 victims of a three-day killing spree by homegrown terrorists. AFP Photo

PARIS // More than one million people joined an “unprecedented” unity march in Paris on Sunday to condemn last week’s attacks by extremist militants.

More than 50 world leaders led the sombre procession, including the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, even as the country remained on high alert as a terrorist group threatened fresh attacks.

Their arms linked, leaders marched three-kilometres from the Place de la Republique down Voltaire Boulevard — named after the Enlightenment-era figure who symbolises France’s attachment to freedom of expression — to the rally’s end point, at the Place de la Nation.

“Paris is the capital of the world today,” said French president Francois Hollande. “The entire country will rise up.”

The scale of the march was described as “unprecedented” by the French interior ministry.

Bearing large signs emblazoned with the words “Je suis Charlie” — or “I am Charlie”, in solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo newspaper journalists who were killed on Wednesday — demonstrators waved the tri-coloured French flag and chanted slogans of “liberty,” “no to terrorists”, and, “vive la France!”

One protester held a large banner of a pencil which read: “We are not afraid.”

Mohammed Amrouche, 50, came into Paris with his wife and two daughters from the suburb Rosny. Mr Amrouche, a French business export manager who is of Algerian origin, said they wanted to share in the feeling of victory over the terrorists.

“This is the same thing we have seen happen in Algeria in the 1990s and in other parts of the world — they target the writers, the poets and the artists. The journalists, they are a priority, the most important in a society, and we must protect them.”

Seventeen people — including journalists and police — were killed in three days of violence that began with a shooting attack by the brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi at the Paris-based satirical newspaper on Wednesday and ended with a hostage-taking at a Jewish supermarket by Amedy Coulibaly on Friday. Four of the hostages were killed.

The three attackers were killed by police, though one suspect — Hayat Boumeddiene, the 26-year-old partner of one of the attackers — remains at large. She is believed to have travelled to Syria before the attacks.

More than 5,500 police and soldiers were deployed across France ahead of the rally, with half protecting demonstrators in the capital — including snipers and antiterror officers.

Demonstrators turned out despite Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) threatening France on Friday with fresh attacks.

The rally marks the first time in 25 years that a French president has taken part in a demonstration. Mr Hollande was joined by German chancellor Angela Merkel, British prime minister David Cameron, and other European leaders.

Before he set off for the march, Britain’s David Cameron said: “We in Britain face a very similar threat, a threat of fanatical extremism.”

Middle East leaders, including Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania and Tunisian prime minister Mehdi Jomaa marched as well. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also took part in the historic display of unity.

European Union and US security ministers met before the rally to work out a joint response to the threat of attacks by extremists returning from Iraq and Syria, with the EU planning to tighten borders and improve the exchange of intelligence between member states.

More than a million people turned out at rallies held outside of Paris, while demonstrations were also held in major cities around the world, including London, Madrid and New York. Demonstrators also turned out in Cairo, Beirut, Ramallah, and Sydney.

French far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who has sought to boost support for her party due to the attacks, said her anti-immigrant party was excluded from the Paris demonstration.

Among the demonstrators in Paris were families of the victims of the attacks, as well as a group of journalists who joined to show protest for freedom of speech.

“The attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices obviously came as a terrible shock,” said Eric Maurice, secretary-general of the French division of the Association of European Journalists, who led a group of journalistic colleagues near the Bastille.

“Even though they attacked journalists from Charlie Hebdo, it was an attack on all journalists. The idea that we as journalists are being symbolically targeted is very profound.”

Youcef Herzi, a 45-year-old taxi driver from Montreuil, a suburb east of Paris, said he could not imagine missing the event.

“I had to be here to show, I am not afraid — we are not afraid,” he said. “We must stand up for freedom of expression and for liberty. Even though they attack us, we are still here. Liberty, democracy are still here.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press

Updated: January 11, 2015 04:00 AM

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