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Friday, January 9, 2015

French officials: Hostage-takers killed at twin standoffs

Gunshots were heard at printing plant northeast of Paris where two brothers suspected of killing 12 people in an Islamist attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo held one person hostage. (AP)
Security forces waged coordinated assaults at twin hostage standoffs Friday, freeing captives and killing three gunmen including brothers suspected in France’s worst terrorist attack in generations, officials said.
The raids capped days of bloodshed and tensions that put the country on edge and led intelligence officials to draw connections to a wider network of violence with links to al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen.
At sundown, the police moved in. Gunfire and explosions rocked the two sites: A kosher market in Paris where a gunman held hostages, and an industrial park northeast of Paris where a hostage was held by two brothers wanted for Wednesday’s rampage at a satirical newspaper that left a dozen people dead.
France’s ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, posted Twitter messages that all three of the suspects had been killed and the hostages were safe.
[Live blog: Latest updates on the shooting suspects and the ongoing hostage situation]
As the hostage dramas unfolded, an apparent matrix took shape as police identified the gunman who seized the market as linked to the fatal shooting of a Paris policewoman on Thursday.
Earlier, investigators identified connections between the police slaying and Wednesday’s rampage at a newspaper in Paris, Charlie Hebdo, including the editor, news reports said.
In Dammartin-en-Goele, about 25 miles northeast of Paris, thousands of antiterrorism forces encircled a commercial building, where the armed pair suspected in the newspaper massacre was holed up with at least one hostage.
[Read: Shooting suspects tried to meet with al-Qaeda]
In separate developments, other links began to emerge.
First, police reported an apparent connection between the newspaper attack and the two suspects in the slaying of the policewoman in a southern Paris suburb.
Then on Friday, one of the police shooting suspects, 32-year-old Amedy Coulibaly, was identified by police as the hostage-taker at the kosher market in Porte de Vincennes, the Associated Press reported. At least five people were being held.
A police official at the scene told the AP that the hostage-taker had threatened to kill the captives if police launch an assault against the brothers suspected in the newspaper killings: Cherif Kouachi, 32, and his brother Said, 34.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, described the twin events as “clearly linked.”
Since 2001, Coulibaly was repeatedly held for crimes ranging from theft to drug trafficking, according to French media reports. In 2013, he was sentenced to five years in prison for involvement in an attempt to help another militant Islamist, Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, escape from prison, Paris newspapers reported.
French investigators have not publicly connected the dots between Coulibaly, his suspected female accomplice — Hayet Boumddiene — and the pair wanted in the newspaper attack.
But intelligence experts have begun to piece together apparent ties between the brothers and al-Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen. In 2013, the Yemen-based group published a notice called “Wanted Dead or Alive for Crimes Against Islam” featuring the late Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo.
The swarm of firepower in Dammartin-en-Goele, a town near Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport, came after the huge dragnet shifted to areas northeast of Paris on Thursday after sightings of brothers.
French authorities say the brothers exchanged fire with police before abandoning a stolen car and holing up in the printing company. The suspects held at least one hostage, but gave no further details, police said.
In scenes reminiscent of other recent terror-related standoffs — including last month’s hostage-taking at a Sydney cafe — French police put the area under lockdown orders, asking people to stay indoors and turn off their lights as the drama played out on an overcast and drizzly afternoon.
Security commanders have given few details as the chokehold tightened on the building.
Audrey Taupenas, spokeswoman for Dammartin-en-Goele, said negotiators made contact with the suspects. They agreed to allow the safe evacuation of a nearby school, she said.
But Yves Albarello, a lawmaker who said he was inside the command post, also told the station i-Tele that it appeared the brothers — the Paris-born sons of Algerian immigrants — “want to die as martyrs.”
Tens of thousands of French security forces have been mobilized to track down the brothers — the main suspects after gunmen burst into the offices of the weekly, Charlie Hebdo, and opened fire during a staff meeting.
It was not immediately clear what weapons the suspects had available, but previous reports said they had Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
In an apparent brush with the fugitives, a businessman who had an appointment at the printing company said he shook hands with one of the armed suspects, believing he was a police special forces officer, France Info radio reported.
The man, identified only as Didier, said the owner of the business was accompanied by an armed man clad in black and wearing a bulletproof vest. Didier said he believed the man at first was a police commando.
“We all shook hands and my client told me to leave,” Didier added.
The armed man then added: “Go, we don’t kill civilians,” Didier recalled.
“As I left, I didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t normal,” Didier said in the radio interview. “I did not know what was going on. Was it a hostage taking or a burglary?”
Stunned onlookers watched as police columns sealed off the town’s industrial zone, dotted with warehouses and cement block apartment buildings.
“No one is safe,’ said Kamel, a 46-year-old airport worker and nearby resident who declined to give his last name. ‘You don’t know what is going to happen next.’
Fresh details emerged Thursday that one of the brothers had tried to meet with al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen.
U.S. officials said the older of the two, Said Kouachi, is believed to have traveled to Yemen in 2011 in an effort to link up with al-Qaeda’s affiliate there at a time when that group was eclipsing the terror network’s core leadership in Pakistan as the principal threat to the United States.
U.S. officials said Kouachi may have received small-arms training and picked up other skills while in Yemen, but they described the years that followed that 2011 visit as a “kind of hole” in the timeline, with significant gaps in authorities’ understanding of the brothers’ activities and whereabouts.
Those blank spots have led U.S. and other officials to seek to determine whether one or both brothers traveled to Syria or another conflict zone, or whether they managed to lower their profile in France to such a degree that scrutiny of them subsided.
In Yemen, a security official told the AP that Said Kouachi is suspected of having fought for al-Qeada in the country. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of an ongoing investigation into the brothers.
As the manhunt widened in recent days, French officials announced that they had taken nine people into custody in relation to the case. Authorities would not release their names, but French media said that those picked up in the dragnet included a sister of the men as well as her companion and the wife of Said Kouachi.
“We will show these terrorists through the firm defense of the values of the republic that we are not afraid and that we remain united,” said Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s interior minister.
Thousands poured into Paris’s Place de la Republique on Thursday for a second night to honor the dead — including some of France’s best-known cartoonists at a publication that had lampooned Islam along with other targets.
Many spoke of unity, with the Eiffel Tower shrouded in black Thursday evening, its lights doused in honor of the fallen. The slogan “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie — became ubiquitous in offices, on sidewalks and in public squares nationwide.
And in a nation that is home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim population as well as the continent’s strongest anti-immigrant and extreme far-right movements, there were also fears of rising religious and political tensions in the aftermath of the attack.
The attack on the offices of satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo is the deadliest in recent history. Here are some of the major terror attacks in France in the last two decades. (Davin Coburn and Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)
On Thursday, a man was arrested in the city of Poitiers after painting the words “Death to Arabs” on the gates of a mosque. In the city of Caromb, a car belonging to a Muslim family was shot at. In two other French cities, small explosives went off near mosques.
No injuries were reported in any of the incidents, but they immediately ignited concerns about further ideological clashes, violent or otherwise.
Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front, spoke out Thursday, calling her party the only one that had challenged the notion of “Islamic fundamentalism on our territory.”
But many in France said that the far right would not succeed in leveraging the attack for its own purposes, saying the nation was pulling together in tragedy, not being drawn apart.
“In the last 24 hours, what I have seen is a sense of national responsibility, a sense of unity,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, a Paris-based terrorism and security expert. “We know they want to use this to tear us apart, to create division. But France will not allow that.”

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