PARIS (REUTERS, AFP) - Prime Minister Edouard Philippe confirmed that police had arrested the suspect behind an attack on French soldiers in a Paris suburb on Wednesday (Aug 9).
“A suspect who was driving the car involved in the attack has been arrested on the highway between Paris and Boulogne-sur-Mer,” Philippe told lawmakers during parliament question time.
In an attack that authorities said bore the stamp of terrorism, the driver appeared to have lain in wait for the soldiers in a pedestrian zone near their base in Levallois-Perret. The affluent suburb on the north-western edge of Paris is home to France’s domestic counter-terrorism agency.
Several dozen troops from Operation Sentinel, launched in the wake of Islamist attacks in Paris in early 2015, are based there.
The car accelerated into the troops, who were starting their patrol, when they were a few metres away, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told reporters outside the hospital where the three more seriously injured victims were being treated.
“This was a deliberate act, not an accident,” Collomb said, adding that counter-terrorism investigators had taken up the case.
A judicial source said the unarmed suspect was arrested on a motorway in northern France after. A Reuters witness saw a bullet-riddled BMW at the scene. One policeman was injured by a stray bullet in the operation.
The Levallois-Perret attack was the 15th on soldiers and police since they were deployed in large numbers nationwide after a series of Islamist militant attacks over the past two-and-a-half years.
Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said Wednesday’s attack was proof there remained an active threat and that the 7,000-strong Sentinel force “was more necessary than ever”.
Three soldiers had light injuries, Parly said, while three others were more gravely hurt but not as seriously as previously thought. Patrick Balkany, mayor of Levallois-Perret, called it a“disgusting” act of aggression that was “without any doubt”premeditated.
The suspected terror attack is the latest in a string of assaults that have hit France since January 2015, claiming more than 230 lives.
The servicemen were hit by a BMW which drove down a quiet street in the upmarket western Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret at around 8am (2pm Singapore time). It accelerated as it neared the troops, rammed into them and then sped away.
“I heard a huge crash which I thought was the sound of scaffolding being put up,” Thierry Chappe, a resident in a building opposite the crime scene, told AFP.
Police later gave chase to the vehicle on a motorway north of Paris, and shot and wounded the suspect, a man aged in his late 30s who was also arrested, sources involved in the manhunt said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb described the act as “deliberate” and carried out by a “man on his own”. He spoke after visiting three of the injured soldiers along with Parly.
Collomb said the forces had been attacked on six different occasions since 2015. The country has been under a state of emergency since major attacks in Paris in November 2015.
The Paris prosecutors’ office said its anti-terrorism unit has launched a probe into “attempted killings... in relation to a terrorist undertaking”.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group (ISIS) has repeatedly targeted France because of its participation in the US-led international coalition fighting the extremist group, with French jets carrying out air strikes in Syria.
“Security forces are actively seeking the perpetrator who is on the run. The ongoing probe will determine his motives and the circumstances in which he acted,” Parly said in a statement earlier.
The incident came just four days after Sentinelle soldiers intervened to control an 18-year-old with a history of psychological problems at the Eiffel Tower where he brandished a knife and shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest). He told investigators he wanted to kill a soldier, sources close to the case told AFP.
In February, a man armed with a machete attacked four soldiers on patrol at Paris’s Louvre Museum, while in April another extremist shot and killed a policeman on the Champs-Elysees, the French capital’s most famous boulevard.
In June, a 40-year-old Algerian doctorate student who had pledged allegiance to ISIS attacked a policeman with a hammer outside Notre Dame cathedral.
The wave of attacks in France has had a serious impact on tourism in the world’s top tourist destination, but the industry has begun to recover as incidents have become more widespread and generally less deadly. The attack took place as the new centrist government was holding its last Cabinet meeting before the summer holidays.
President Emmanuel Macron publicly clashed with the head of the French armed forces last month over a proposed cut to the military budget this year. Macron slapped down General Pierre de Villiers, telling him “I’m your boss”, after he complained about the impact of the cuts at a time when the army was in action in the Middle East and West Africa as well as at home.
De Villiers resigned a few days later.