Friday 20 April 2018

French police storm supermarket and kill hostage-taker

The man killed three people and wounded others before being shot dead in the southern town of Trebes.

French police officers and emergency service members work at a supermarket during an incident in Trebes (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
French police officers and emergency service members work at a supermarket during an incident in Trebes (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

By Sylvie Corbet, Samuel Petrequin and Jean-Paul Bonincontro, Associated Press

An armed man went on a rampage in southern France, carjacking a vehicle, shooting at police and taking hostages in an hours-long standoff at a supermarket.

He killed three people and wounded others before being shot dead when French police stormed the supermarket, authorities said.

Among the seriously wounded was a French police officer who offered himself up in a hostage swap and gave police crucial details about what was going on inside the supermarket.

French President Emmanuel Macron said it appeared to be a terrorist attack, the first to hit France since he became leader in May.

Islamic State claimed that the attacker – a 26-year-old known to French police for petty crime and drug dealing – was one of its “soldiers”.

The hours-long drama began when the attacker hijacked a car near the medieval city of Carcassonne on Friday morning, killing one person in the car and injuring the other, according to French interior minister Gerard Collomb.

The attacker, identified as Redouane Lakdim, then fired six shots at police officers who were on their way back from jogging near Carcassonne, said Yves Lefebvre, secretary general of the SGP Police-FO police union.

The police were wearing athletic clothes with police insignia.

One officer was shot in the shoulder but the injury was not serious, Mr Lefebvre said.

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France terror attack

Lakdim then went to a Super U supermarket in the nearby small town of Trebes, 60 miles south east of Toulouse, shooting and killing two people in the market and taking an unknown number of people hostage.

Special police units converged on the scene while authorities blocked roads and urged residents to stay away.

Police were able to evacuate some shoppers at the supermarket.

One officer offered himself up in a hostage swap and was seriously injured, Mr Collomb said.

The officer managed to leave his mobile phone switched on after the swap, establishing contact with officers outside the supermarket.

Mr Collomb did not say how the police officer was wounded.

Through that phone, police heard gunshots inside the building and decided that elite forces had to storm the supermarket, killing Lakdim, Mr Collomb said.

He said two other officers were wounded during the assault.

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“He acted alone, there was no-one else but him,” Mr Collomb said, speaking from Trebes.

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 minister added.

He said Lakdim was a petty criminal and small-time drug dealer who had been under police surveillance, but it was not clear to authorities that he was a committed radical.

“It was more of a petty criminal who at a certain moment decided to act,” Mr Collomb said.

A customer in the supermarket described the assailant as a “very agitated man shouting several times ‘Allahu akbar!'”

Christian Guibbert told reporters “we heard an explosion, well, several explosions. So I went to see what was happening and 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 one”.

Mr Guibbert said he had sought shelter with his wife, sister-in-law and other customers in the butcher’s refrigerator.

Then he went back into the supermarket’s main room and walked towards the assailant, calling police and describing the situation.

He said the suspect “ran after me”.

Mr Guibbert escaped out of an emergency market door as elite police forces arrived to storm the building.

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A police vehicle parked on a crossroad in Trebes (BFM TV via AP)

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

France has been repeatedly targeted because of its participation in the air strikes.

Counter-terrorism investigators took over the probe into Friday’s rampage.

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

While France has not seen an attack in several months “the threat remains high”, Mr Macron said, describing ongoing risks from “several individuals who radicalised themselves”.

The attack on Friday occurred in a normally quiet part of France, where the main tourist attraction is the treasured old city of Carcassonne, its medieval walls and its summertime festivals.

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French police officers cordon off the area (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

The attack poses a new challenge to Mr Macron’s leadership as he faces nationwide strikes and criticism of his reforms, which include a tough new counter-terrorism law that gives police extra powers to conduct searches and hold people under house arrest.

Mr Macron rushed back from an EU summit in Brussels to the crisis centre in Paris that was overseeing the investigation into the attack.

Standing next to Mr Macron in Brussels, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her sympathy with those affected by the hostage-taking.

“When it comes to terrorist threats, we stand by France,” she said.

Press Association

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