Heavily armed hooded men stormed the Paris headquarters of a satirical weekly known for stand-ups of ‘radical Islam’ on Wednesday, killing 12 people in cold blood in the worst attack in France in decades.
The assault on Charlie Hebdo headquarters in a quiet Paris neighbourhood sparked a massive manhunt as the two gunmen managed to escape, executing a wounded police officer as they fled. The men remained on the run in the early evening, with few clues on their whereabouts and parts of the French capital in lockdown.
Prosecutors said witnesses heard the gunmen shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ as they carried out the attack. Police said the calm, calculated manner of the assault showed they were highly trained.
Victims included four prominent cartoonists, including the chief editor, who had been holding a morning meeting when the assailants armed with Kalashnikovs burst in and opened fire, officials said.
President Francois Hollande immediately rushed to the scene of what he called ‘an act of exceptional barbarism’ and ‘undoubtedly a terrorist attack’.
Amateur video shot after the bloodbath showed two men masked and dressed head-to-toe in black military style running toward a wounded policeman as he lay on the pavement. The attacker says “you wanted to kill me?” before shooting the officer in the head execution style. The gunmen then climb into their getaway vehicle and drive off.
Large numbers of police and ambulances rushed to the scene, where shocked residents spilled into the streets. Reporters saw bullet-riddled windows and people being carried out on stretchers. Two policemen were confirmed among the dead and four people were critically injured.
The attack took place at a time of heightened fears in France and other European capitals over fallout from the wars in Iraq and Syria, where hundreds of European citizens have gone to fight alongside the radical Islamic State group.
In a sign of such tensions, a media group’s office in Madrid was evacuated later in the day after a suspicious package was sent there.
One man, who witnessed the attack, described a scene like ‘in a movie’. “I saw them leaving and shooting. They were wearing masks. These guys were serious,” said the man who declined to give his name. “At first I thought it was special forces chasing drug traffickers or something.”
An employee at a nearby daycare centre said he was walking with children when panic erupted. “People leaned out of the window and yelled at me to get off the pavement,” he said. “We got out of there very fast,” said Jean-Paul Chevalier, 56. “People were panicking. I heard shooting.”
Hollande called for ‘national unity’, adding that “several terrorist attacks had been foiled in recent weeks”.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced outrage at the ‘terrible terrorist attack’ which he described as a ‘horrendous, unjustifiable and cold-blooded crime’. Similarly, US President Barack Obama condemned the ‘cowardly, evil’ attack, while British Prime Minister David Cameron called it ‘sickening’. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the attack was ‘despicable’ and Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as the Arab League condemned the violence.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu strongly condemned the shooting and said to associate Islam with terrorism would be a mistake, while Saudi Arabia denounced the “cowardly terrorist act that is rejected by true Islamic religion as well as the rest of the religions and beliefs.”
While the Muslim states unanimously condemned the attack, for which group immediately claimed responsibility, a fighter of the Islamic State group told Reuters that the raid was revenge for insults against Islam. “These are our lions. It’s the first drops – more will follow,” said Abu Mussab, a Syrian who fights with the Islamic State.
Wednesday’s shooting was the worst attack in France in at least four decades. It revived fears of a return to the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s when France was hit by a wave of extremist violence.
The satirical newspaper attacked Wednesday gained notoriety in February 2006 when it reprinted blasphemous cartoons that had originally appeared in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, causing fury across the Muslim world. Its offices were fire-bombed in November 2011 when it published a sacrilegious cartoon. Despite being taken to court under anti-racism laws, the weekly continued to publish controversial caricatures.
Editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb, who had lived under police protection after receiving death threats, was among the victims. Others included Jean Cabut, known across France as Cabu; Georges Wolinski; and Bernard Verlhac, better known as Tignous.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2015.