Monday 17 December 2018

Flags at half mast as France honours police terror hero

Officer was fatally wounded by Islamist gunman after swapping himself for a hostage

TRIBUTE: Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame. Photo: AFP Photo
TRIBUTE: Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame. Photo: AFP Photo

Rory Mulholland in Paris

Flags were flown at half-mast at gendarme stations across France as the country honoured the officer declared a national hero by President Emmanuel Macron after he swapped himself for a hostage and was killed by an Islamist gunman.

"Arnaud Beltrame died in the service of the nation to which he had already given so much," Mr Macron said.

"In giving his life to end the deadly plan of a jihadi terrorist, he fell as a hero."

The 45-year-old Lieutenant Colonel in the gendarmerie died in hospital overnight from gunshot wounds after he offered himself in exchange for a hostage held by an attacker holed up in a supermarket in the southwestern town of Trebes last Friday.

Lt Col Beltrame was among the first officers to respond to the attack on the supermarket.

Beltrame, who joined the elite police special forces in 2003 and served in Iraq in 2005, had organised a training session in the Aude region in December for just such a hostage situation.

At the time, he armed his officers with paintball guns, according to the Depeche du Midi newspaper.

"We want to be as close to real conditions as possible," he said then.

But when he went inside the supermarket, he gave up his own weapon and volunteered himself in exchange for a female hostage.

Unbeknown to the Morocco-born hostage-taker, he left his mobile phone on so police outside could hear what was happening in the store.

They stormed the building when they heard gunshots, officials said.

Beltrame was fatally wounded.

In addition to the four people killed by the gunman in his rampage, the attacker was killed by police.

Fifteen other people were injured.

French police and soldiers have been a prime target of attacks by extremists, with 10 killed in recent years, including Beltrame.

Other victims include three soldiers killed near Toulouse in 2012, three police officers shot in 2015, a police couple killed in their home in 2016 and a police officer killed on Paris's Champs-Elysees in 2017.

Dozens of others have been wounded.

According to Macron's statement, Lt Col Beltrame also served as a member of the presidential guard and in 2012 earned one of France's highest honours, the Order of Merit.

He was married with no children.

Cedric Beltrame told RTL radio yesterday that his brother died "a hero".

"He was well aware he had almost no chance. He was very aware of what he was doing," he said.

Beltrame's mother told RTL radio that, for her son, "to defend the homeland" was "his reason to live."

"He would have said to me, 'I'm doing my job, Mom, nothing more'," she said.

People placed flowers in front of the gendarmerie headquarters in the French medieval city of Carcassone, 90km southeast of Toulouse, to pay tribute to Lt Col Beltrame. Flags at all gendarmeries were ordered to be flown at half-mast.

President Macron says investigators will focus on establishing how the gunman, who has been identified by prosecutors as Morocco-born Redouane Lakdim (25) got his weapon and how he became radicalised.

Last Friday night, authorities searched a car and the apartment complex in central Carcassonne where Lakdim was believed to live.

Two people were detained over alleged links with a terrorist enterprise, one woman close to Lakdim and a friend of his, a 17-year-old male, Paris prosecutor's office said.

Lakdim was known to police for petty crime and drug dealing.

But he was also under surveillance and since 2014 was on the so-called Fiche S list, a government register of individuals suspected of being radicalised but who have yet to perform acts of terrorism.

Despite this, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said there was "no warning sign" that Lakdim would carry out an attack.

The four-hour drama began at 10.13am when Lakdim hijacked a car near Carcassonne, killing one person in the car and wounding the other, the prosecutor said.

Lakdim then fired six shots at police officers on their way back from jogging near Carcassonne, hitting one in the shoulder, said Yves Lefebvre of the SGP Police-FO police union.

Lakdim then went to a Super U supermarket in nearby Trebes, shooting and killing two people in the market and taking hostages.

He shouted "Allahu akbar!" - the Arabic phrase for God is great - and said he was a "soldier of the Islamic State" as he entered the Super U, where about 50 people were inside, Molins said.

Special police units converged on the scene while authorities blocked roads.

"We heard an explosion - well, several explosions," shopper Christian Guibbert told reporters.

"I saw a man lying on the floor and another person, very agitated, who had a gun in one hand and a knife in the other."

Guibbert said he put his wife, sister-in-law and other shoppers in the meat locker for safety.

The manager of the supermarket, who would identify herself only by her first name, Samia, was in her office when she heard the shots.

"Call the gendarmes," she told her employees. "There's a terrorist in the store."

She said she helped evacuate as many people as possible.

"It was terrifying," Samia said.

During the standoff, Lakdim requested the release of Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving assailant of the November 13, 2015, attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead.

The interior minister suggested, however, that Abdeslam's release wasn't a key motive for the attack.

The Isil-linked Aamaq news agency said the attacker was responding to the group's calls to target countries in the US-led coalition carrying out airstrikes against IS militants in Syria and Iraq since 2014.

France has been repeatedly targeted because of its participation.

France has been on high alert since a series of extremist attacks in 2015 and 2016 that killed more than 200 people.

© Telegraph

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