PARIS (AFP, REUTERS) - Dozens of world leaders including Muslim and Jewish statesmen linked arms leading hundreds of thousands of French citizens in an unprecedented march under high security to pay tribute to victims of Islamist militant attacks.
President Francois Hollande and leaders from Germany, Italy, Israel, Turkey, Britain and the Palestinian territories among others, moved off from the central Place de la Republique ahead of a sea of French and other flags. Giant letters attached to a statue in the square spelt out the word Pourquoi?" (Why?) and small groups sang the "La Marseillaise" national anthem.
The leaders also observed a minute of silence for the victims.
Some 2,200 police and soldiers patrolled Paris streets to protect marchers from would-be attackers, with police snipers on rooftops and plain-clothes detectives mingling with the crowd. City sewers were searched ahead of the vigil and underground train stations around the march route are due to be closed down.
The silent march - which may prove the largest seen in modern times through Paris - reflected shock over the worst militant Islamist assault on a European city in nine years. For France, it raised questions of free speech, religion and security, and beyond French frontiers it exposed the vulnerability of states to urban attacks. "Paris is today the capital of the world. Our entire country will rise up and show its best side," said Hollande in a statement.
Family members of the 12 people killed during the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier arrived at the rally site, wearing a white bandana on their heads with the word "Charlie" written across.
At a press conference in Paris last Saturday, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the government had decided to take "exceptional measures for an exceptional situation to ensure the rally's security ensure public order."
He said that 2,200 policemen and 1,500 military officers would be deployed to protect the hundreds of thousands of people expected to attend the rally, which is being held in defiance of a terrorism spree that took 17 lives in Paris. Snipers will be positioned on rooftops to ensure particiapants' safety, he said.
"This mobilisation would ensure the safety of sensitive places including medias outlets, religious centres and diplomatic missions," news reports quoted him as saying.
Participants would walk about 3km from the historic Place de la Republique to Place de la Nation in the east of the capital. The French authorities have mapped two routes for the march.
According to the French newspaper Liberation, the victims' family members would lead the march. They would be followed by Hollande, foreign heads of state and French politicians. A source told AFP that the politicians were expected to remain at the march for only a short period of time.
Travel on public transport in and around Paris was free on Sunday to allow participants to get to and from the demonstration, and at least one train operator has cut prices for people coming from other cities.
In an unprecedented show of unity, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority would both attend the rally to honour the victims of three days of bloodshed that claimed the lives of both Jews and a Muslim police officer.
The development came as security sources revealed that Hayat Boumeddiene, the 26-year-old girlfriend of of one of three gunmen killed in a fiery climax to twin hostage dramas last Friday, was not in fact in France at the time of the killings. She was initially suspected of having a role in the killing of a policewoman by her partner Amedy Coulibaly.
The Turkish authorities said that she may be in Syria, after passing through Istanbul last week and vanishing near the Turkish-Syrian border.
She remains of great interest to investigators piecing together the jihadist attacks by Coulibaly and brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, who killed 12 people last Wednesday in an attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
In a foretaste of Sunday's demonstration, more than 700,000 people poured onto the streets of cities across France last Saturday, many carrying banners reading "jesuischarlie" (I am Charlie), the tribute to Charlie Hebdo that has been the global rallying point in the wake of the slaughter.
Many brandished pens to symbolise freedom of expression after Charlie Hebdo was targeted for its cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed.
"The real battle is to defend freedom of thought," said 40-year-old Yamina, tears in her eyes, at a rally in the southern city of Marseille.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told an emotional rally on Saturday near where Coulibaly killed four hostages at the supermarket: "I have no doubt that millions of citizens will come to express their love of liberty, their love of fraternity." He was speaking about Sunday's march.
Along with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Jordan's King and Queen were present, in addition to a host of top European leaders, including Merkel and Cameron.
US President Barack Obama was represented by Attorney-General Eric Holder, who took part in an emergency meeting of interior ministers to discuss the threats posed by Islamic extremism.
Hollande, who led the tributes to the victims, has warned his shell-shocked country not to drop its guard in the face of possible new attacks.
After the three-day rampage by the three gunmen claiming to be members of the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extremist groups came a chilling new threat from the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula group.
AQAP top sharia official Harith al-Nadhari warned France to "stop your aggression against the Muslims" or face further attacks, in comments released by the SITE monitoring group.
German newspaper Bild said the bloodshed in France could signal the start of a wave of attacks in Europe, citing communications by Islamic State leaders intercepted by US intelligence.
It said the US National Security Agency had intercepted communications in which leaders of the jihadist group announced the next wave of attacks, the mass circulation daily said in its Sunday edition, citing unnamed sources in the US intelligence services.
Early Sunday, a German newspaper in the northern port city of Hamburg that reprinted Mohammed cartoons from Charlie Hebdo was the target of an arson attack although no one was hurt.
'Armed and dangerous'
France's three days of terror started last Wednesday when the Kouachi brothers burst into the Charlie Hebdo offices and sprayed bullets into the editorial meeting, killing some of France's best-known cartoonists.
They then slaughtered a Muslim policeman in cold blood as he lay helpless on the ground before fleeing, sparking a manhunt that lasted more than 48 hours.
A day later, Coulibaly, the third gunman, shot dead a policewoman in a southern suburb of Paris.
The massive manhunt for the two brothers developed into a car chase last Friday and then a tense standoff as they took one person hostage in a printing firm northeast of Paris.
With the eyes of the world trained on the printing company in the small town of Dammartin-en-Goele and the siege of the Kouachi brothers, Coulibaly stormed into a Jewish supermarket in eastern Paris and took terrified shoppers hostage.
The twin hostage dramas came to a dramatic end as the brothers charged out of their building all guns blazing before being cut down by elite commandos.
Moments later, security forces stormed the kosher supermarket, killing Coulibaly but making the grisly discovery that four innocent Jewish people had died during the hostage-taking.
A security source said before the police assault, Coulibaly had phoned friends from the scene, urging them to stage further attacks. He "asked his friends to go and attack various targets, specifically police stations in the Paris suburbs," the source said.
A prosecutor said on Sunday that Coulibaly was linked to the shooting of a jogger on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The jogger was seriously wounded in a Paris suburb.
Investigators are now trying to hunt down Coulibaly's partner, Boumeddiene.
After she was described as "armed and dangerous" and on the loose in Paris, a Turkish security source said that Boumeddiene had arrived in Turkey on Jan 2 and had since likely travelled on to Syria.
The French newspaper, Le Monde, posted photographs purporting to show Boumeddiene wearing a niqab - a head-to-toe black covering - and holding a weapon that appears to be a crossbow. Another photograph shows her pointing the weapon at the camera. The authenticity of the photos have not been confirmed.
The attacks have raised fears of more violence in France and other countries. French President François Hollande praised the police but noted continuing dangers for the country, without specifying those perils.
"France is not done with threats that are targeting (the country)," he said in a televised address to the nation.
Three days of terror, high tension
Five people, including the gunman Coulibaly, were found dead after the police assault on the Jewish supermarket in the Porte de Vincennes area of Paris on Friday and several captives were freed, security sources said.
Seven people, including three police, were hurt, with officers carrying some of the terrified hostages from the scene in their arms.
"It's war!" screamed a mother as she pulled her daughter away. An AFP reporter saw at least one body lying at the scene, where the sliding glass door of the shop was completely shattered.
Coulibaly told French TV he was a member of the ISIS extremist group and had coordinated his atrocities with Cherif Kouachi, who told television he was backed and financed by Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
BFMTV reported that police were able to exploit a lapse in Coulibaly's defences as he had not hung up his phone properly after speaking to one of their reporters, thus allowing the police to overhear him.
And it was as he knelt to do his evening prayer that they stormed the building.
Mr Hollande described the attack on the Jewish supermarket as an "appalling anti-Semitic act" and said "these fanatics have nothing to do with the Muslim religion."
Coulibaly and his girlfriend Boumeddiene were also wanted for the shooting of a policewoman in southern Paris on Thursday.
The Vincennes area was swamped with police who shut down the city's ringroad as well as schools and shops. Authorities ordered residents to stay indoors.
In Dammartin-en-Goele, French elite forces deployed snipers on roofs and helicopters buzzed low over the small printing business where the Charlie Hebdo suspects had been cornered early Friday.
The brothers took the manager hostage, later releasing him after he helped Said with his wound, while a second man hid beneath a sink upstairs, said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins. The second man was able to text security forces information from inside the premises, a source said, and he survived the assault unharmed.
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 salesman told France Info radio that one of the brothers said: "'Leave, we don't kill civilians anyhow'."
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 car from a woman who said she recognised the brothers.
Heightened global threat
And as fears spread in the wake of the attacks, the United States warned Americans to beware of "terrorist actions and violence" all over the world.
"Recent terrorist attacks, whether by those affiliated with terrorist entities, copycats, or individual perpetrators, serve as a reminder that US citizens need to maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness," the State Department said.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean posted about the attacks on his Facebook page:
The head of Britain's domestic spy agency MI5 warned that Islamist militants were planning other "mass casualty attacks against the West" and that intelligence services may be powerless to stop them.
Questions mounted as to how a pair well-known for militant views could have slipped through the net and attack Charlie Hebdo.
Cherif Kouachi was a known jihadist who was convicted in 2008 for involvement in a network sending fighters to Iraq. His older brother Said was known to have travelled to Yemen in 2011, where he received weapons training from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The brothers were both 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, the officials said.
The ISIS group's radio praised them as "heroes" and Somalia's Shebab militants, Al-Qaeda's main affiliate in Africa, hailed the massacre as a "heroic" act.
The bloodbath at Charlie Hebdo, which had repeatedly lampooned the Prophet Muhammad, has sparked a global chorus of outrage, with impromptu and poignant rallies around the world in support of press freedom under the banner "jesuischarlie" (I am Charlie).
And as a politically divided and crisis-hit France sought to pull together in the wake of the tragedy, the head of the country's Muslim community - the largest in Europe - urged imams to condemn terrorism at Friday prayers.
In a highly unusual step, Mr Hollande met far-right leader Marine Le Pen at the Elysee Palace on Friday, as France geared up for a "Republican march" on Sunday expected to draw hundreds of thousands.
'Stupidity will not win'
Refusing to be cowed, the controversial Charlie Hebdo magazine plans a print run of one million copies next week instead of its usual 60,000, as journalists from all over the French media landscape piled in to help out the decimated staff.
The staff are working on the new issue, targeted for next Wednesday, at premises loaned by the newspaper Liberation.
"We are hosting them because they don't even have a pencil. Their computers and all their equipment have been sealed" in their bloodsoaked offices a few streets away, said one of the bosses of Liberation, Pierre Fraidenraich.
The massive print run is a sign of defiance after the attack left 12 people dead, including five of the newspaper's most prominent cartoonists. Among them was editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier.
"It's very hard. We are all suffering, with grief, with fear, but we will do it anyway because stupidity will not win," said columnist Patrick Pelloux.
The issue will be sold outside France and all proceeds are to go to the families of the 12 people murdered in the attack on the newspaper.