PARIS (AFP, REUTERS) - French elite forces surrounded two brothers suspected of slaughtering 12 people in the Islamist massacre at Charlie Hebdo as a fresh shooting and hostage drama erupted at a kosher supermarket on Friday in eastern Paris.
Snipers were deployed on roofs and helicopters swooped low over a small printing business in the town of Dammartin-en-Goele, only 12km from Paris’s main Charles de Gaulle airport. The brothers were holding at least one person hostage.
Meanwhile, another hostage drama was unfolding in the east of the French capital. A man already suspected of gunning down a policewoman on Thursday was thought to be behind a new attack on the kosher grocery store, with at least five hostages taken and another two killed.
The mugshots of the man and a woman, believed to be his accomplice, were released by police soon after the attack. They were named as Amedy Coulibaly, 32, and Hayat Boumeddiene, 26.
Police sources said there was a “connection” between Coulibaly and the brothers accused of carrying out France’s bloodiest massacre in half a century at the Charlie Hebdo offices.
The trio were reportedly members of the same jihadist group. Coulibaly knew at least one of brothers, a source said.
He has reportedly demanded police lift the siege on the brothers.
"You know who I am and I'm going to keep these hostages until the siege in Dammartin is lifted," he was quoted by BBC as saying.
The massive manhunt for the two brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, appeared to be approaching a dramatic climax as security forces laid siege to the CDT printing business in Dammartin-en-Goele.
Ahead of the stand-off, police had already exchanged fire with the pair in a high-speed car chase. Prosecutors told AFP there had been “no casualties reported” in the immediate aftermath of the shoot-out.
One witness described coming face-to-face at the printer’s with one of the suspects, dressed in black, wearing a bullet-proof vest and carrying what looked like a Kalashnikov.
The witness told France Info radio that the man said: “’Leave, we don’t kill civilians anyhow’.” Schools nearby Dammartin-en-Goele were evacuated and residents barricaded themselves indoors as the hostage drama unfolded.
One 60-year-old choked back tears as she said how elite forces burst into the shop where her daughter works and ordered them to take cover.
“My daughter told me: ‘Don’t be scared mummy, we’re well protected. She was calm but me, I’m scared. I’m really scared,” said the woman.
Prior to the standoff, the suspects had hijacked a Peugeot 206 nearby from a woman who said she recognised them as the brothers, accused of killing 12 people in Wednesday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo, which repeatedly lampooned the Prophet Mohammed.
President Francois Hollande rushed to the interior meeting to be briefed on the situation as Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that France was at “war” with terrorism, but “not in a war against religion.” “It will without doubt be necessary to take measures” to respond to the terrorist “threat,” said Valls.
"Two Air France planes were forced to abort their landing at Paris’s main Charles-de-Gaulle airport and go round again ‘due to the presence of helicopters... flying over the zone at low-altitude," the airline said.
The brothers were thought to be two of three men behind Wednesday's bloodbath at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, the worst terrorist attack in France in half a century, which they said was revenge for the weekly's repeated publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed.
A third suspect, 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad, surrendered to police.
A maximum security alert declared in the capital on Wednesday was expanded to the region where the manhunt took place.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the militant group sowing terror across swathes of Iraq and Syria and calling for global Islamic war, hailed the brothers as “heroes” on its Al-Bayan radio station.
In a further sign of the attackers’ motives, a source close to the case said that Molotov cocktails and Islamic militant-style flags had been discovered in another getaway vehicle used by the attackers and abandoned in Paris.
Paris police had issued arrest warrants for the duo, saying they were "likely armed and dangerous". The police also launched an appeal to the public for information, releasing pictures of the brothers. The authorities told CNN affiliate BFMTV that one of the suspects left behind an identification card at the scene of the shooting. "It was their only mistake," said Dominique Rizet, BFMTV's police and justice consultant, adding that the discovery helped the investigation. Some reports claimed the ID card was found in a getaway car which the police impounded.
Unverified reports that one of Charlie Hebdo terrorists dropped his ID at scene of attack. pic.twitter.com/0ruEYDBee2
— Polly Boiko (@Polly_Boiko) January 7, 2015
The third suspect - Hamyd Mourad - had earlier surrendered to police. A spokesman for the Paris prosecutor said that Mourad had walked into a police station in Charleville-Mézières, about 145 miles north-east of Paris, and surrendered, New York Times reported. “He introduced himself and was put in custody,” Agnès Thibault-Lecuivre was quoted as saying.
Mourad was from the north-eastern city of Reims, while the Kouachi brothers were from the Paris region.
Saïd Kouachi was reported to have spent “a few months” in Yemen in 2011 training in small arms combat, marksmanship and other skills that appeared to be on display in videos of the military-style attack carried out on the Charlie Hebdo office on Wednesday.
His brother Cherif was sentenced to three years in prison in 2008 in Paris for helping to funnel prospective militant fighters from France to Iraq. He served 18 months, with the remainder of his sentence suspended.
Both brothers were flagged in a US database as terror suspects and also on the no-fly list, meaning they were barred from flying into the United States, US officials said.
As the police hunt for the suspects, a fresh shoot-out broke out just outside Paris on Thursday. Coulibaly in a bullet-proof vest fired on police officers with an automatic rifle, killing a policewoman and seriously injuring a city employee. He was on the run after the attack.
The shooting took place in the Montrouge suburb, near Porte de Chatillon, outside the south of Paris.
The hooded attackers on Wednesday stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly known for lampooning Islam and other religions, in the most deadly militant attack on French soil in decades.
Famous French cartoonists Cabu, Charb, Tignous and Wolinski were among the 12 killed in the attack. Charb, or Stephane Charbonnier, was the publishing editor of the magazine. Another 20 people were injured, some critically.
The attack took place during the weekly's editorial meeting when all the journalists were supposed to be present, according to reports.
One of the men was captured on video shouting “Allah!” as four shots rang out. Two assailants were then seen calmly leaving the scene. A police official said the gunmen fled towards the eastern Paris suburbs.
A short amateur video broadcast by French television stations shows two hooded men outside the building. One of them sees a wounded policeman lying on the ground and strides over to him to shoot him dead at point-blank range. The two then walk over to a black saloon car and drive off.
In another clip on Television station iTELE, the attackers are heard shouting: “We have killed Charlie Hebdo. We have avenged the Prophet Mohammad.”
A video purportedly showing the gunmen was posted on YouTube. (WARNING: Video is graphic in nature. Viewer discretion is advised)
‘These guys were serious’
Police union official Contento described the scene inside the offices as “carnage”.
A source close to the investigation said two men "armed with a Kalashnikov and a rocket-launcher" stormed the building in central Paris and "fire was exchanged with security forces". The source said gunmen had hijacked a car and knocked over a pedestrian as he sped away.
Witness Benoit Bringer told TV station iTELE: “Two black-hooded men entered the building with Kalashnikovs (rifles). A few minutes later we heard lots of shots.”
One man, who witnessed the attack, described a scene like “in a movie”. “I saw them leaving and shooting. They were wearing masks. These guys were serious,” said the man who declined to give his name. “At first I thought it was special forces chasing drug traffickers or something.”
An employee at a nearby daycare centre said he was walking with children when panic erupted. “People leaned out of the window and yelled at me to get off the pavement,” he said. “We got out of there very fast,” said Jean-Paul Chevalier, 56. “People were panicking. I heard shooting.”
This tweet, by Le Monde journalist Elise Barthet, appears to show two gunmen pointing their weapons at a police car.
— Elise Barthet (@EliseBarthet) January 7, 2015
Charlie Hebdo gained notoriety in February 2006 when it reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had originally appeared in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, causing fury across the Muslim world. Its offices were fire-bombed in November 2011 when it published a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad under the title “Sharia Hebdo”.
Despite being taken to court under anti-racism laws, the weekly continued to publish controversial cartoons of the Muslim prophet. In September 2012, Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of a naked Prophet Muhammad as violent protests were taking place in several countries over a low-budget film, titled Innocence Of Muslims, which was made in the United States and insulted the Prophet.
Editor-in-chief Charbonnier had lived under police protection after receiving death threats.
The paper’s last tweet on Wednesday morning before the attack included a cartoon of Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Happy New Year wishes.
This week’s front page featured controversial author French Michel Houellebecq, whose latest book Soumission or Submission, which imagines a France in the near future that is ruled by an Islamic government, came out on Wednesday. The book has widely been touted as tapping into growing unease among non-Muslim French about immigration and the rise of Islamic influence in society.
Countries condemn attack
The attack took place at a time of heightened fears in France and other European capitals over fallout from the wars in Iraq and Syria, where hundreds of European citizens have gone to fight alongside the radical Islamic State group. In a sign of such tensions, a media group’s office in Madrid was evacuated later in the day after a suspicious package was sent there.
France last year reinforced its anti-terrorism laws and is already on alert after calls from Islamist militants to attack its citizens and interests in reprisal for French military strikes on Islamist strongholds in the Middle East and Africa.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore "strongly condemns this savage act of terror".
"It is yet another reminder of the threat posed by terrorism to all civilised societies, and that it is totally wrong to invoke religion to justify such savagery," he wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday. He also wrote to French Prime Minister Manuel Valls to convey his condolences.
Singapore President Tony Tan Keng Yam extended his condolences to France's President Francois Hollande in a letter on Thursday. "As France mourns the victims, may the perpetrators be brought to justice swiftly, and may the wounded have a speedy recovery," he wrote
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said Singapore authorities had stepped up security patrols and surveillance.
US President Barack Obama has also condemned the deadly shooting, calling it a terrorist attack against its ally. "We are in touch with French officials and I have directed my administration to provide any assistance needed to help bring these terrorists to justice," he said in a statement.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among European leaders condemning the shooting. “This abominable act is not only an attack on the lives of French citizens and their security. It is also an attack on freedom of speech and the press, core elements of our free democratic culture.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain stood with its ally against “all forms of terrorism”. Earlier, Cameron said in a Twitter message that the killings were “sickening", while Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he was “appalled” to hear about the “apparent terrorist attack”.
The head of the French Muslim Council called the attack a "declaration of war". "It's a thunderous declaration of war," Mr Dalil Boubakeur, who is also imam of the mosque of Paris, was quoted as saying by Le Figaro newspaper. "The times have changed. We're entering a new phase of this confrontation," he said.
Another imam of the greater Paris region also expressed his outrage over the shooting. Said Mr Hassen Chalghoumi, imam of the Drancy mosque in Paris's Seine-Saint-Denis northern suburb: "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."