PARIS: Hooded gunmen stormed the Paris offices of a weekly satirical magazine killing at least 12 people including two police officers in the worst militant attack on French soil in recent decades.
A police union official said the assailants remained at liberty and there were fears of further attacks.
Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) is well known for courting controversy with satirical attacks on political and religious leaders.
The last tweet on its account mocked Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the militant Islamic State, which has taken control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
President Francois Hollande rushed to the scene. “An act of indescribable barbarity has just been committed today in Paris,” he said.
“Measures have been taken to find those responsible, they will be hunted for as long as it takes to catch them and bring them to justice.”
A short amateur video broadcast by French television stations shows two hooded men outside the building.
One of them sees a wounded policeman lying on the ground and strides over to him to shoot him dead at point-blank range.
The two then walk over to a black saloon car and drive off.
A police official said the gunmen fled towards the eastern Paris suburbs after holding up a car.
“There is a possibility of other attacks and other sites are
being secured,” Police union official Rocco Contento said.
Sirens could be heard across Paris as Prime Minister Manuel Valls said security would be ramped up at transport hubs, religious sites, media offices and department stores.
Police union official Contento described the scene inside the offices as “carnage”.
Ten members of the Charlie Hebdo staff died in the attack, prosecutors said.
Sources at the weekly said the dead included co-founder Jean “Cabu” Cabut and editor-in-chief Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier.
“About a half an hour ago two black-hooded men entered the building with Kalashnikovs (rifles),” witness Benoit Bringer told TV station iTELE.
“A few minutes later we heard lots of shots.”
The massacre Wednesday at French weekly Charlie Hebdo took place after years of confrontation between the satirical publication and Muslims infuriated by what they see as its attacks on their religion.
Its offices were fire-bombed in November 2011 when it published sacrilegious cartoons that had originally appeared in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, causing fury across the Muslim world.
In September 2012 Charlie Hebdo published controversial cartoons as violent protests were taking place in several countries over a low-budget film, titled “Innocence of Muslims”, which was made in the United States and insulted the prophet.
French schools, consulates and cultural centres in 20 Muslim countries were briefly closed along with embassies for fear of retaliatory attacks.
Editor Stephane Charbonnier has received death threats and lives under police protection.
The Danish newspaper beefs up security
The Danish newspaper that caused a global stir with a series of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed stepped up security on Wednesday after the attack, a report said.
Jyllands-Posten informed its staff by e-mail about the unspecified security measures, the Danish paper Berlingske said on its website.
“Surveillance and the level of security in and around our headquarters in Copenhagen and in (the west Danish city of) Viby has been increased,” Berlingske quoted the email as saying.
Meanwhile, the Danish security and intelligence service said in a statement that it was monitoring the situation carefully.
“For the time being, the situation does not warrant a change in the assessment of the terrorism threat against Denmark, which remains serious,” it said in a statement.
Kurt Westergaard does not fear for his safety
Kurt Westergaard, the artist behind the most controversial of the 12 cartoons, was targeted in a failed murder attempt at his home in 2010 but told media on Wednesday that he did not fear for his safety thanks to police protection.
He told Danish public radio that the Paris attack was “scary and horrible” and he praised Charlie Hebdo’s staff for holding “all authoritarian forces” to account regardless of whether “they’re Islamists, Catholics or politicians.”
Worldwide condemnations pour in
US President Barack Obama condemned the attack calling it a “terrorist attack” and pledging US assistance.
“We are in touch with French officials and I have directed my administration to provide any assistance needed to help bring these terrorists to justice,” he said.
The US embassy in France has changed the avatar of its official twitter page to “Je Suis Charlie” in wake of the attack.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also condemned the attack as “sickening” and said Britain stood with France in the fight against terror.
“The murders in Paris are sickening. We stand with the French people in the fight against terror and defending the freedom of the press,” Cameron said in a statement on his official Twitter feed.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the deadly shooting calling it an attack on freedom of speech and the press.
“This abominable act is not only an attack on the lives of French citizens and their security,” Merkel said in a statement.
“It is also an attack on freedom of speech and the press, core elements of our free democratic culture. In no way can this be justified.”
In a separate statement, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel called the attack an “unbelievably brutal crime.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the attack, branding it an assault on the media and freedom of expression.
“It was a horrendous, unjustifiable and cold-blooded crime. It was also a direct assault on a cornerstone of democracy, on the media and on freedom of expression,” Ban said.