Updated: January 8, 2015 4:45:19 pm
By: Jamey Keaten & Lori Hinnant
In the worst terror attack in France in recent decades, masked gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar!’’ stormed the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly known for lampooning religion including radical Islam, on Wednesday, killing 12 people — two policemen and 10 journalists including the editor — before escaping in a car.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said security forces were hunting for three gunmen after the noon-time attack on the weekly. A Reuters report said 11 people were injured in the attack, including four or five who are critical.
Among the dead were four prominent cartoonists who have repeatedly lampooned Islamic terrorists and Prophet Muhammad, leading to speculation that the attack was the work of Islamic extremists.
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Clad in black with hoods and machine guns and speaking flawless French, the attackers forced one of the cartoonists at the weekly — at the office with her young daughter — to open the door. The staff was in an editorial meeting and the gunmen headed straight for the paper’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier — widely known by his pen name Charb — killing him and his police bodyguard, said Christophe Crepin, a police union spokesman on the scene.
NYT quoted a lawyer for the weekly as saying that a number of prominent editors and cartoonists had been killed, including co-founder Jean “Cabu” Cabut, and cartoonists Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac.
Corinne Rey, the cartoonist who said she was forced to let the gunmen in, said the men spoke fluent French and claimed to be from al Qaeda. In an interview with the newspaper l’Humanite, she said the entire shooting lasted perhaps five minutes.
One journalist at the Charlie Hebdo office, who asked that her name not be used, texted a friend after the shooting: “I’m alive. There is death all around me. Yes, I am there. The jihadists spared me.”
A short amateur video broadcast by French television stations showed two hooded men leaving the building, calmly firing on a wounded policeman lying on the ground, before walking over to a black car and driving off.
In another clip on television station iTELE, they are heard shouting: “We have killed Charlie Hebdo. We have avenged the Prophet Mohammad.” Other video images showed two gunmen in black at a crossroads, as they appeared to fire down one of the streets. A cry of “Allahu Akbar!’’ could be heard among the gunshots.
The video showed the killers moving deliberately and calmly. One even bent over to toss a fallen shoe back into the small black car before it sped off. The gunmen fled eastwards towards the Paris suburbs, dumping their car in a residential area, police said. They then hijacked another car before running over a pedestrian and disappearing.
“There is a possibility of other attacks and other sites are being secured,” police union official Rocco Contento said. He described the scene inside the Charlie Hebdo’s offices as “carnage”.
Xavier Castaing, a police spokesman, said the three masked men were carrying AK-47 rifles, and the attack lasted several minutes.
President François Hollande called the slayings “a terrorist attack without a doubt’’ and said several other attacks have been thwarted in France “in recent weeks”. “An act of indescribable barbarity has just been committed today in Paris,” he said. “Measures have been taken to find those responsible, they will be hunted for as long as it takes to catch them and bring them to justice.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but several websites and Twitter accounts associated with extremist groups applauded the violence, calling it revenge for the newspaper’s satirical treatment of Islam and its Prophet.
The security analyst group Stratfor said the gunmen appeared to be well-trained, “from the way they handled their weapons, moved and shot. These attackers conducted a successful attack, using what they knew, instead of attempting to conduct an attack beyond their capability, failing as a result.”
Charlie Hebdo is well known for courting controversy with satirical attacks on political and religious leaders and has published numerous cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammad. The last tweet on its account mocked Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the militant Islamic State. Another cartoon, released in this week’s issue, titled “Still No Attacks in France’’, had a caricature of a jihadi fighter saying, “Just wait — we have until the end of January to present our New Year’s wishes.’’
The weekly has faced repeated threats, and its offices were firebombed in 2011 after a spoof issue featuring a caricature of the Prophet on its cover. Nearly a year later, the publication again published crude Muhammad caricatures, drawing denunciations from around the Muslim world.
The cover of the weekly on Wednesday featured a caricature of Michel Houellebecq, a controversial novelist whose sixth novel, Submission, imagines a France run by Muslims in which women forsake Western dress and polygamy is introduced. On the cover, Houellebecq is depicted as a wizard and smoking a cigarette. “In 2022, I will do Ramadan,” he is shown as saying.
The book’s publication, ahead of presidential elections in 2017, comes as the increasingly influential far-right National Front has helped spur a loud and often acrimonious debate about immigration.
Both al Qaeda and the Islamic State have repeatedly threatened to attack France. On Wednesday, France raised its security alert to the highest level and reinforced protective measures at houses of worship, stores, media offices and transportation. Top government officials held an emergency meeting and Hollande planned a nationally televised address in the evening.
“This is the darkest day of the history of the French press,’’ said Christophe DeLoire of Reporters Without Borders.
“I am extremely angry. These are criminals, barbarians. They have sold their soul to hell. This is not freedom. This is not Islam and I hope the French will come out united at the end of this,” said Hassen Chalghoumi, Imam of the Drancy mosque in Paris’s Seine-Saint-Denis northern suburb. (AP with NYT, Reuters)
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