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Saturday 18 November 2017

Soldier's attacker 'shouted of dying for Allah' in Paris airport before shooting

French police secure Orly airport, south of Paris (AP/Thibault Camus)
French police secure Orly airport, south of Paris (AP/Thibault Camus)
French police secure Orly airport, south of Paris (AP/Thibault Camus)
Police said a man has been shot dead after trying to seize the weapon of a soldier guarding Orly Airport in Paris (AP/Francois Mori)

A suspected Islamic extremist attacked a French soldier at a Paris airport - shouting he wanted to kill and die for Allah - and wrested away her assault rifle, a prosecutor said.

Two colleagues on her patrol at Orly Airport shot and killed the man before he could fire the military-grade weapon in the busy airport terminal at 8.30am.

The attack forced terminals at Paris' second-biggest airport to shut down and evacuate, sent passengers and workers fleeing in panic and trapped hundreds aboard flights that had just landed.

It was the violent climax of a 90-minute spree of criminality across the French capital by the suspect, identified as Ziyed Ben Belgacem.

The attack further rattled France, which remains under a state of emergency after attacks over the past two years that have killed 235 people.

Stopped first by police in suburbs early on Saturday for driving too fast and without lights in a small Renault, the 39-year-old Frenchman opened fire with a revolver loaded with bird shot, injuring an officer in the face, authorities said.

He then fled by car to a bar that he frequented regularly, and where he had already stopped hours earlier, and again opened fire. No one was injured.

Finally, in another car stolen at gunpoint, he parked at Orly. A few minutes later, he hurled himself at three soldiers on patrol in its South Terminal, throwing a bag with a petrol can at the floor and wielding his 9mm revolver, said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.

"With a pistol in his right hand and a bag over his shoulder, he grabbed (the soldier) with his left arm, made her move backward by three to four meters, positioning her as a shield, and pointed his revolver at her forehead," he said.

According to soldiers, the attacker yelled: "Put down your weapons! Put your hands on your head! I am here to die for Allah. Whatever happens, there will be deaths."

In a struggle, the attacker managed to wrest free the captive soldier's Famas rifle and sling it over his shoulder. Mr Molins said surveillance footage appeared to show that Belgacem was "determined to see the process through to the end".

"Everything suggests that he wanted to take the Famas so there would be deaths and to shoot people," he said.

In between the moments when he ducked behind his hostage, the two other soldiers fired three bursts, eight rounds in all, that killed the attacker, Mr Molins said.

"Her two comrades thought it was necessary - and they were right - to open fire to protect her and especially to protect all the people who were around," said French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

"We'd already registered our bags when we saw a soldier pointing his gun at the attacker who was holding another soldier hostage," said Pascal Menniti.

Authorities said at least 3,000 people were evacuated from the airport. Hundreds of passengers were confined for hours aboard 13 flights that were blocked in landing areas, and 15 others were diverted to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Despite the transport chaos, French authorities stressed that security planning - reinforced across the country in the wake of repeated attacks - worked well.

The soldier was "psychologically shocked" but unhurt by the "rapid and violent" assault, said Colonel Benoit Brulon, a spokesman for the military force that patrols public sites in France.

The attacker's motives were unknown but the anti-terror section of the Paris prosecutors' office took over the investigation.

His father and brother were detained by police for questioning, standard operating procedure.

Mr Molins said a cousin of Belgacem's also turned himself in, having spent time with the attacker in the bar the previous night.

A search of Belgacem's residence found cocaine and a machete, he said.

The father and brother told police that Belgacem phoned them on Saturday morning, minutes after shooting at the police traffic patrol, to say he had "made a mistake", Mr Molins said.

The prosecutors' office said the attacker had a record of robbery and drug offences.

Mr Molins said he was out on bail, banned from leaving France and obliged to report to police, having been handed preliminary charges for robberies in 2016.

Mr Molins said Belgacem was flagged as having been radicalised during a spell in detention from 2011-2012.

His house was among scores searched in November 2015 in the immediate aftermath of suicide bomb-and-gun attacks that killed 130 people in Paris.

French president Francois Hollande said investigators will determine whether the attacker "had a terrorist plot behind him".

The military patrol at Orly was part of the Sentinelle force installed around France to protect sensitive sites after a string of deadly Islamic extremist attacks. Saturday was at least the fourth time that its soldiers have been targeted since 2015.

Saturday's attack comes after a similar incident last month at the Louvre Museum in Paris in which an Egyptian man attacked soldiers guarding the site. He was shot and wounded and taken into custody.

AP

Press Association

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