PARIS (AFP) - Thousands of police, including elite security forces deploying helicopters with night vision tools, were mobilised in northern France in a massive manhunt on Thursday for two brothers accused of killing 12 people in an attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Armed police and paramilitary forces combed through an area in the Aisne region near where the fugitives - Said Kouachi, 34, and his brother Cherif, 32 - had reportedly robbed a petrol station and abandoned their getaway car in the town of Villers-Cotterêts in Picardy.
Police blocked access to three villages – Corcy, Fleury, and Longpont – in a heavily wooded region about 70 kilometres north-east of Paris, Bloomberg reported. They stopped journalists at roadblocks outside the towns bordering the Retz Forest. The forest covers some 13,000 hectares, roughly the size of Paris.
Authorities believe that the suspects entered a wooded area on foot, CNN reported.
The gunmen 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.
Around 24 hours into the manhunt, the brothers were identified after holding up the village petrol station, 80km from Paris, before fleeing again, possibly on foot and still armed with at least a Kalashnikov, police said.
Special police units rushed to the scene, where a maximum security alert was declared in addition to the capital.
Moving methodically, officers in heavy black bulletproof vests searched garden huts and garages, rifles at the ready, under the nervous eyes of local residents. An AFP reporter saw them storm one house. Every failed search only added to the mounting tension.
"I live near the woods," said village resident Roseline, a grandmother. "I'm afraid. Night is falling and they could be hiding nearby."
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the militant group sowing terror across swathes of Iraq and Syria and calling for global jihad, 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 jihadist-style flags had been discovered in another getaway vehicle used by the attackers and abandoned in Paris.
Cherif Kouachi was convicted in 2008 for involvement in a network sending fighters to Iraq. He and his brother were born in Paris to Algerian parents and were orphaned at an early age.
MOURNING AND NEW JITTERS
As the dramatic chase unfolded, bells tolled across France at midday, public transport paused and people gathered outside the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in pouring rain with banners reading "Je Suis Charlie" (I am Charlie).
Several thousand people gathered in Paris late Thursday, hours after groups of people right across the country stood at midday to mark a minute of silence.
Television footage showed children at a Muslim school in the northern city of Lille holding up sheets of paper emblazoned "not in my name".
Across the world, crowds gathered from Moscow to Washington under the banner "I am Charlie" to show support for the controversial magazine, seen by supporters as an emblem of free speech.
Charlie Hebdo reporter Laurent Leger, who miraculously survived the bloodbath by hiding under a table, gave the first eyewitness account from inside the office.
"I saw a masked man, I saw a lot of blood, I saw half the editorial team on the ground," he told France Info radio. "I saw horror."
The gunmen were heard shouting "Allahu akbar" ("God is greatest") as they executed some of France's most outspoken and beloved journalists, as well as two policemen.
Meanwhile, several other incidents rocked the jittery nation. Just south of Paris, a man with an automatic rifle shot dead a policewoman and wounded a city employee - an act that prosecutors said they were treating as terrorism, but which Cazeneuve said was not "at this stage" being linked to Wednesday's attack.
Two Muslim places of worship were fired at, prosecutors said, and there was an explosion at a kebab shop in eastern France. No casualties were reported.
Declaring Thursday a national day of mourning - only the fifth in the last 50 years - President Francois Hollande called the Charlie Hebdo attack "an act of exceptional barbarity". The Eiffel Tower, usually as much a Paris landmark at night as during the day, dimmed its lights at 8pm.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that an international meeting on terrorism would take place in Paris on Sunday, including US and European officials. The government also called for large demonstrations to show solidarity across the country on Sunday.