French, world leaders condemn attack at Charlie Hebdo

French and world leaders have strongly condemned a shooting at the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in which at least 12 people were killed. Thousands turned out across French cities Wednesday night in solidarity with the victims.

MEHDI CHEBIL/FRANCE 24 I President François Hollande arrives at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, the site of a shooting that killed 12 people.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack at the Charlie Hebdo weekly, whose caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed have frequently drawn protest from Muslims.

The Paris prosecutor’s office confirmed that 12 people had so far been killed, including four of France’s best-known cartoonists and the magazine’s director, Stéphane Charbonnier (also known as Charb). Another 11 people were reportedly injured, four of them critically.

A police source told Reuters late on Wednesday that police were looking for two brothers in their 30s as well as a younger accomplice. A separate security source told FRANCE 24 that police were focusing on the towns of Reims and Charleville-Mézières north of Paris.

France has raised its security alert to its highest level and reinforced protective measures at houses of worship, stores, media offices and on public transportation while government officials convened for an emergency meeting.

In a televised address on Wednesday evening, Hollande said the attack was an attack on all of France and on the ideal of freedom of expression. He declared a day of national mourning on Thursday for the victims.

Police said that some 15,000 people had gathered at Place de la République in Paris Wednesday evening in a show of solidarity with the slain and injured journalists. People also flocked to Twitter to show their support online using the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag.

Tens of thousands braved the cold night in other cities across France. The police prefecture estimated that between 13,000 and 15,000 paid homage to the Charlie Hebdo victims in Rennes while another 10,000 turned up in both Toulouse and Lyon, local authorities said.

International reaction

US President Barack Obama said he strongly condemned the "horrific shooting" before adding: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this terrorist attack."

Speaking in French, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged US solidarity with France. "Tous les Américains se tiennent à leurs côtés (All Americans stand beside France)," Kerry said.

FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday said the Federal Bureau of Investigation is working with French law enforcement officials to bring those responsible to justice.

British Prime Minister David Cameron called the attack "sickening". "We stand with the French people in the fight against terror and defending the freedom of the press," Cameron said in a message on Twitter.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday also voiced outrage at the "despicable attack", calling it a "horrendous, unjustifiable and cold-blooded crime".

The European Union leadership called the shooting "revolting" and expressed solidarity with France, vowing to pursue the fight against terrorism. Donald Tusk, the new president of the European Council, said he was "shocked" by the attack.

"The European Union stands beside France after this appalling act. It is a brutal attack against our fundamental values and against the freedom of expression, a pillar of our democracy," the former Polish premier said in a statement.

"The fight against terrorism in all its forms must continue unabated," Tusk said.

While other world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, condemned the attack, supporters of the militant Islamic State group celebrated the slayings as well-deserved revenge against France.

The Islamic State group has repeatedly threatened to attack French targets. Just minutes before the attack, Charlie Hebdo had tweeted a satirical cartoon of the extremist group’s leader giving New Year’s wishes.

Another cartoon, released in this week’s issue and entitled “Still No Attacks in France”, had a caricature of an extremist fighter saying: “Just wait, we have until the end of January to present our New Year’s wishes.”

Three masked gunmen

Just before noon, three masked men armed with automatic weapons attacked the newspaper’s office in central Paris, according to the interior ministry.

The staff were in an editorial meeting and the gunmen headed straight for Charbonnier, killing him and his bodyguard, said Christophe Crépin, a police union spokesman on the scene. Charbonnier had been living under police protection since receiving death threats for cartoons the magazine published in 2012.

Minutes later the shooters walked out to a black car waiting below, calmly firing on a police officer, with one gunman shooting him in the head as he writhed on the ground.

Video images on the website of public broadcaster France Télévisions showed two gunmen in black at a crossroads who appeared to fire down one of the streets. A cry of “Allahu akbar!”  Arabic for “God is great”  could be heard among the gunshots.

As the attackers jumped into the waiting car, witnesses reported hearing shouts of "We have avenged the prophet." The attackers made it as far as the 19th arrondissement (district) before abandoning the now-damaged car and hijacking a second vehicle. 

A history of threats against Charlie Hebdo

Charlie Hebdo has been repeatedly threatened for its caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed and other controversial sketches. Its offices were firebombed in 2011 after a spoof issue featuring a caricature of the prophet on its cover.

The weekly continued to publish controversial cartoons of the Muslim prophet and other iconic figures, despite being taken to court by French Muslim groups charged with "inciting racial hatred", which is against the law in France.

In September 2012 Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of a naked Mohammed as violent protests were taking place in several countries over a low-budget film, entitled "Innocence of Muslims", which was made in the United States and was thought by some to have insulted the prophet.

French schools, consulates and cultural centres in 20 Muslim countries were briefly closed at the time along with embassies, for fear of retaliatory attacks.

Then-publisher Charbonnier received death threats and was still living under police protection when he was killed on Wednesday.

This week's front page featured controversial French author Michel Houellebecq, whose latest book "Soumission" (Submission)   which imagines a France in the near future that is ruled by an Islamic government   came out on Wednesday.

The book has widely been touted as tapping into growing unease among non-Muslim French about immigration and the rise of Islam's influence in society.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS and AFP)


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