Sunday 25 August 2019

France seeks coalition with US and Russia to fight Islamic State

French president Francois Hollande observes a minute of silence before delivering a speech at the Versailles castle (Philippe Wojazer, Pool via AP)
French president Francois Hollande observes a minute of silence before delivering a speech at the Versailles castle (Philippe Wojazer, Pool via AP)
A woman joins crowds leaving floral tributes and candles at Place de la Republique in Paris following the terrorist attacks on Friday evening (PA)
French police in full bulletproof gear at the Place de la Republique in Paris (AP)

France wants to unite with the US and Russia in a grand coalition dedicated to fighting Islamic State, French president Francois Hollande has said.

The announcement came as authorities worldwide struggled to pinpoint those responsible for the deadliest attacks on France since World War II.

Mr Hollande said: "The faces of the dead people, of the wounded, of the families don't leave my mind."

He spoke after France and many allies observed a minute of silence in honour of the 129 killed and 350 wounded when three teams of IS attackers targeted the national stadium, a rock concert and four nightspots with assault gun fire and suicide bombs on Friday.

"In my determination to combat terrorism, I want France to remain itself. The barbarians who attack France would like to disfigure it. They will not make it change," Mr Hollande declared. "They must never be able to spoil France's soul."

Mr Hollande also said he would present a bill on Wednesday seeking to extend the state of emergency - granting the police and military greater powers of search and arrest, and local governments the right to suspend demonstrations and impose curfews - for another three months.

In neighbouring Belgium, the base for many of the attackers, police surrounded a suspected hideout for a man identified as a driver for the attackers, 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, but came up empty after charging into the property.

In Paris, officials identified the alleged Belgian mastermind of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is believed to be beyond reach in Syria.

Earlier on Monday, thousands clasped hands outside some of the bullet-riddled nightspots as children returned to school and city authorities vowed to resume normal life as quickly as possible.

In a powerful symbolic move, the Eiffel Tower reopened to tourists after a two-day shutdown.

As darkness fell it was floodlit in the red, white and blue of the French flag along with a projection of Paris' motto of "tossed but not sunk", suggesting an unsinkable city tossed in the waves.

Mr Hollande said the United States and Russia needed to set aside their policy divisions over Syria and "fight this terrorist army in a single coalition".

He said he hoped to meet soon with US president Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, although he did not specify whether they would all meet together.

As France intensified its air strikes overnight on suspected IS power bases in Syria, police struggled to achieve a breakthrough in their hunt for militants who survived Friday's assaults.

Six blew themselves up with suicide belts while police shot to death a seventh.

Iraqi officials said their intelligence agency suggested that 19 attackers and five back-up activists committed the carnage, an assertion not publicly supported by Western intelligence agencies.

France has issued an arrest warrant for Abdeslam, who was identified as the alleged driver of a rental car that delivered attackers to a rock concert inside a nightclub in which 89 died.

That car, rented by Abdeslam, was found abandoned on Paris' east side with several assault rifles and clips of ammunition still inside.

French border police had stopped him on Saturday but unwittingly allowed him to travel on to Belgium, unaware of an arrest warrant that had been issued in Paris that described him as extremely dangerous.

Belgian police on Monday donned balaclavas and assault rifles as they mounted a tense hourslong standoff outside Abdeslam's suspected hideout in the Brussels district of Molenbeek but made no arrests after storming the residence.

One of Abdeslam's brothers, Brahim, blew himself up outside a Paris restaurant, killing one civilian, during Friday night's attack.

Another brother, Mohamed, was detained by Belgian police but released without charge on Monday.

His lawyer, Nathalie Gallant, said that, unlike his two brothers, Mohammed Abdeslam "didn't make the same life choice" and had not been "tempted into jihadism".

Across France, police utilising emergency powers said they raided 168 properties and arrested 127 people, 104 of whom were placed under house arrest, in search of members of a suspected sleeper cell of Islamic State activists.

French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said police seized a Kalashnikov assault rifle and other weapons during the overnight raids.

In hopes of killing Islamic State organisers and trainees, France overnight launched its heaviest air strikes yet on the city of Raqqa, the group's de-facto capital in Syria.

French authorities said Sunday night's bombings destroyed a jihadi training camp and munitions dump.

The Defence Ministry said that 12 aircraft based in Jordan and the Persian Gulf dropped a total of 20 bombs.

It called the operation the largest attack by French air power since France joined the US-led coalition in targeting suspected IS power bases in Syria in September.

In Paris, harrowing accounts of survival continued to emerge, particularly from the Bataclan theatre, where three attackers shot into the fleeing crowd.

Two then detonated suicide vests as police stormed the building, fatally shooting the third attacker.

Julien Pearce, a journalist at Europe 1 radio who escaped by crawling onto the Bataclan stage, said he got a good look at one attacker who appeared "very young".

"That's what struck me: his childish face, very determined, cold, calm, frightening," Mr Pearce said.

Paris remains on edge amid three days of official mourning. French troops have deployed by the thousands in support of police to restore a sense of security in one of the world's most visited cities.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in Paris to show American solidarity with France after the attacks.

Mr Kerry will meet and thank US Embassy staffers and hold talks with French officials, said US State Department spokesman John Kirby.

Mr Kerry will reiterate Washington's commitment to the strong US-France relationship, express condolences to the victims of the attacks and reiterate the shared resolve to counter violent extremism in France and elsewhere.

PA Media

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