Tuesday 18 June 2019

Three days of terror: how tragedy unfolded

Chaos in government and fear on streets during Paris attacks

Demonstrators make their way along Place de la Republique during a mass unity rally
Demonstrators make their way along Place de la Republique during a mass unity rally
Thousands of people gather for the rally at Republique square in Paris
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the French conservative party UMP party, and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy arrive at the Elysee Palace before attending a solidarity march
French President Francois Hollande welcomes Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel as she arrives at the Elysee Palace before the solidarity march
Amedy Coulibaly

Matthew Campbell, Tara Patel and Helene Fouquet

Fifty-three hours into France's worst security crisis in a generation, President Francois Hollande and his closest advisers came to an agonising conclusion.

Gathered in the Elysee Palace to supervise the response to the Paris attacks by Islamist terrorists, they were told by police commanders about 4pm over secure mobile phones that the resolution would have to involve simultaneous assaults.

That meant synchronising special-forces teams 25 miles apart against opponents armed with automatic weapons, a rocket launcher and no qualms about more killing.

But Hollande never gave the order. Events spiralled too fast, as government officials and eyewitnesses later recounted.

By the time the shooting ended just over an hour later, three terrorists were dead, bringing the body count of victims and perpetrators during the three-day crisis to 20.

The savagery has shaken the nation to the core. France hasn't experienced this kind of violence since a wave of terror linked to the Algerian civil war in the mid-1990s.

Meeting day

The tragic events had their beginning at 10am last Wednesday. The editorial team at 'Charlie Hebdo' gathered for their regular planning meeting at headquarters on Rue Nicolas Appert in the 11th arrondissement. On the agenda was the next installment of their no-holds-barred weekly, known for lampooning everyone from Michael Jackson to Jesus Christ and the prophet Mohammad.

The magazine's most famous cartoonists, known by their pen names Cabu, Charb, Tignous and Wolinski, were all present, as was Bernard Maris, a Bank of France council member and 'Charlie Hebdo' contributor.

About 90 minutes later, two masked men brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles burst in, firing at random. One shouted "where is Charb?" - known for drawing images of Mohammad. One of the gunmen shouted "Allahu Akbar" as they fired.

In all, 10 people were killed inside, including the four cartoonists and Maris.

Wrong address

In a bizarre hitch, the men initially got the wrong door. After asking a pair of terrified maintenance workers for the right one, they killed one of the duo, their first casualty.

Corinne Rey, a female cartoonist who had left to visit her daughter in a nursery, encountered the attackers. They forced her to enter the code to open the magazine's locked door.

"We were so far from thinking this could happen in the heart of Paris, to journalists, with military weapons," said 'Charlie Hebdo' journalist Laurent Leger, who was present in the room during the carnage. "It was unimaginable."

Their mission accomplished, the gunmen fled to their black Citroen C3.

A few hundred feet away, an unfortunate police officer, a Muslim named Ahmed Merabet, became the 12th victim - a murder captured on camera that would be on newspaper front pages worldwide the next morning. The assailants evaded police, abandoning the Citroen and stealing another car near the Porte de Pantin, a metro station about three miles away in the northeast corner of Paris.

Industrial area

And then they disappeared, melting into the tangle of postwar suburbs and industrial zones that surround the capital. Hollande rushed to the scene at 'Charlie Hebdo'.

At the Porte de Pantin, police focused on the abandoned Citroen. Inside were 10 Molotov cocktails, a Kalashnikov magazine, a Go-Pro camera and a pair of walkie-talkies. In addition, the assailants had made an almost-inexplicable error.

Left in the vehicle was a laminated ID card French citizens are required to carry at all times. It bore the name of Said Kouachi, a 34-year-old of Algerian descent with no criminal record. His brother was another matter.

Jihadist conviction

Cherif Kouachi (32) had spent time in prison for participating in a jihadist cell. He wasn't obscure even beyond counter-terror circles, having appeared in 2008 media reports about the trial of seven men for involvement with the group. His fingerprint was found on one of the Molotov cocktails.

Police released the Kouachis' names about 3am. Social media buzzed - that the men had hijacked another car; that they were hiding out in the city of Reims; that they'd been killed or arrested.

All proved false. As dawn broke over Paris, a minor car accident in the suburb of Montrouge opened the second wave. It took authorities 16 hours to confirm the connection.

About 8am on Thursday, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, a 26-year-old trainee police officer from Martinique, was at the site of the accident. She was shot and killed. The assailant fled in a stolen car.

Detectives at the scene found ammunition casings matching those used in Kalashnikov rifles and a ski mask. Throughout the day, police said they weren't aware of a link with the Kouachis, despite the presence of such an unusual weapon.

Crisps

Meanwhile, the two brothers were about 50 miles north of Paris. They robbed a petrol station - on a remote stretch of the N2 highway in Picardie - at gunpoint about 9.30am. They stole bags of crisps but didn't harm the owner, who identified them to investigators. It was another break in the case.

All day, the elite GIGN and RAID police units laid siege to nearby hamlets in the area, where quarries were used to hide soldiers during World War I. Officers went house to house in the villages, which abut a forest larger than the city of Paris.

Intelligence agencies determined that Said Kouachi had probably received military training in Yemen, raising the stakes of any confrontation.

About 11pm, the fruitless search was wound down for the night.

Mask evidence

Back in Paris at roughly the same time, technicians isolated a DNA sample from the ski mask found in Montrouge. Two hours later, they found it matched that of Amedy Coulibaly, a friend of the Kouachis whose DNA was on file after a four-year stretch in prison.

Police released the names and photos of Coulibaly and the woman believed to be his wife, 26-year-old Hayat Boumeddiene, and asked the public for help finding them.

The next morning, Friday, began the final encounter with the brothers. About 8am, they emerged from the forest about 12 miles south of the petrol station they'd robbed, stealing another car, a Peugeot 206 hatchback. They soon encountered a police patrol on the edge of Dammartin-en-Goele, a town of 8,000 residents near Charles de Gaulle airport.

Under fire, they ran into a print shop, briefly taking its owner hostage before releasing him at 10.20am. The man, Michel Catalano, said he offered them coffee and they let him go. Unknown to them, another employee, a 26-year-old graphic designer named Lilian Lepere, hid upstairs under a sink, all the while sending text messages to police.
Outside, residents recounted a surreal scene.

Helicopter view

"We saw a helicopter flying over. A few minutes later there were four helicopters," said Julie Caron, a teacher in an elementary school 500m from the industrial zone. They were instructed to take their students into hallways, away from the windows.

At 11.45am, having sealed off the printing shop, police sent text messages to the Kouachis' phones, with no response.

In Paris, Hollande met a stream of officials, including far right leader Marine Le Pen, who complained about being excluded from yesterday's march that featured dozens of world leaders.

The mess soon deepened. At 1.55pm, gunfire was reported at Hyper Cacher, a Jewish grocery at the Porte de Vincennes on Paris's eastern edge.

Cold room

From surveillance images, police determined that Coulibaly had turned up. He took shoppers hostage, while one employee led others to the basement cold room to hide.

Like the Kouachis, Coulibaly wasn't above making mistakes. When TV network RTL called the store, he picked up the phone but left it off the hook when he tried to hang it up immediately. That allowed the network's journalists to hear Coulibaly try to justify his acts to his hostages. "You don't know what's happening in Muslim countries," he told them. "If they weren't attacked elsewhere, I wouldn't be here."

Around 3pm he called BFM, a 24-hour TV news channel. Amid similar claims about his motivations, he said that if police attacked the Kouachis in Dammartin, he would start killing hostages.

Social media

This claim made the simultaneous raids being contemplated in Hollande's office essential. With access to Twitter and other news sources, police knew Coulibaly would learn immediately of any raid in Dammartin. The scene at the Elysee was nothing like that of a high-tech situation room. There were no computers on the conference table and just a single flat-screen TV tuned to a news channel. Hollande was on the phone constantly, taking notes on a white legal pad.

It was just before 5pm when the door of the printing shop in Dammartin cracked open. Moments later, the Kouachis emerged in bulletproof vests, shooting at police nearby, who responded with stun grenades. The brothers kept firing, before they died in a burst of gunfire.

There was no choice but to begin the assault at Hyper Cacher. In Paris, the nervous quiet outside the grocery was suddenly broken by four loud explosions. "The attack! It's starting!" - someone called out just before another blast and gunfire. After staying back initially, Coulibaly emerged from the front door before being struck by police bullets.

Worst toll

Inside were the bodies of four hostages, killed before the assault. Three police officers were wounded by Coulibaly's shots. The remaining hostages emerged unhurt.

The three assailants' bodies had barely been moved before hard questions began to be asked about how such a deadly sequence of events had been allowed to occur.

Seventeen innocents were killed - the worst toll from terrorist acts in France since a 1961 train bombing by a group opposed to France's withdrawal from Algeria.

After the two raids, police made a renewed appeal for information on the whereabouts of Boumeddiene.

By late Saturday she'd been located, after a fashion. She'd flown from Madrid to Istanbul on January 2, five days before the 'Charlie Hebdo' attack, according to a police official. On January 8, she slipped over the border into Syria.

In Paris, the surviving staff of 'Charlie Hebdo' have vowed to keep going. A new issue is planned for January 14, with a print run of one million copies.

"We are going to publish next week," said Leger, the journalist there. "It won't be an obituary."

Irish Independent

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