Scattered gunfire and explosions shook France on Thursday as its defiant citizens held a day of mourning for 12 people slain at a Paris newspaper — and police hunted two heavily armed brothers suspected in the massacre, fearing they might strike again.
The two suspects — one a former pizza deliveryman who had a prior terror conviction and a fondness for rap — should be considered “armed and dangerous”, French police said in a bulletin.
French President Francois Hollande — joined by residents, tourists and Muslim leaders — called for tolerance after the country’s worst terrorist attack in decades. At noon, the Paris metro came to a standstill and a crowd fell silent near Notre Dame cathedral to honour Wednesday’s victims.
French tricolour flags flew at half-mast after thousands took part in vigils across France late on Wednesday to defend freedom of speech, many wearing badges declaring
“Je Suis Charlie” (I Am Charlie) in support of the newspaper and the principle of freedom of speech.
“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,’’ Hollande said.
France’s Prime Minister said the possibility of a new attack “is our main concern’’ and announced several overnight arrests. Tensions ran high in Paris, where 800 extra police patrolled schools, places of worship and transit hubs. Britain increased its security checks at ports and borders.
The satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad and witnesses said the attackers claimed allegiance to Al Qaeda in Yemen. The newspaper’s lawyer Richard Malka said it would be published next Wednesday with one million copies compared to its usual print run of 60,000. The weekly newspaper had long drawn condemnation and threats — it was firebombed in 2011 — for its depictions of Islam, although it also satirised other religions and political figures.
Around the world, from Berlin to Bangkok, thousands filled squares and streets for a second day, holding up pens to protect the right to freedom of speech.
“The only thing we can do is to live fearlessly,’’ wrote Kai Diekmann, editor in chief of Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling daily. “Our colleagues in Paris have paid the ultimate price for freedom. We bow before them.’’
Eight journalists, two police officers, a maintenance worker and a visitor were killed in Wednesday’s newspaper attack and 11 people were wounded, four of them critically.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the two suspects still at large in the slayings — Cherif Kouachi, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34 — were known to France’s intelligence services. Cherif Kouachi was convicted of terrorism in 2008 for ties to network that sends radical fighters to Iraq. His lawyer confirmed that police tracked down the identities of the brothers because one left his ID behind in a getaway car.
By Thursday afternoon, authorities focused their search around the towns Villers-Cotterets and Crepy-en-Valois northeast of Paris, according to an official with the national gendarme service.
Two men resembling the suspects robbed a gas station in Villers-Cotterets early on Thursday, and police swarmed the site while helicopters hovered above. Later large numbers of special police units arrived in Crepy-en-Valois amid reports the suspects had holed up there. However, the gendarme official later said the men had not yet been located.
A third suspect, Mourad Hamyd, 18, surrendered at a police station after hearing his name linked to the attacks, a Paris prosecutor’s spokeswoman said. His relationship to the Kouachi brothers was unclear, although some reports claimed he was their brother-in-law.
One French police official said the suspects were linked to a Yemeni terrorist network. And a witness, Cedric Le Bechec, wrote on Facebook that the attackers said as they were fleeing “Tell the media that it’s Al Qaeda in Yemen.’’
Meanwhile, two explosions hit near mosques in France early on Thursday, raising fears the deadly attack at Charlie Hebdo was igniting a backlash against France’s large and diverse Muslim community. No one was injured in the attacks, one in Le Mans southwest of Paris and another in Villefranche-sur-Saone, near Lyon, southeast of the capital.
France’s top security official, meanwhile, abandoned a top-level meeting to rush to a shooting on the city’s southern edge that killed a policewoman. The shooter remained at large and it was not immediately clear if her death was linked to Wednesday’s deadly attack.
A French security official said seven people had been arrested overnight in the investigation.