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France on alert amidst hunt for Charlie Hebdo gunmen

FRANCOIS LO PRESTI, AFP I French police special carry out searches in Corcy, northern France, on January 8, 2015 during investigations into a deadly attack the day before on the Paris offices of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

French police continued a massive manhunt Thursday for two brothers suspected of killing 12 people a day earlier at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. Nine people have so far been arrested in connection with the attack.

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The two suspects   Cherif Kouachi, 32, and his 34-year-old brother Said Kouachi   should be considered “armed and dangerous”, French police said in a statement. The younger brother was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2008 for trying to join up with fighters in Iraq.

Nine people close to the suspects have been detained for further questioning and 90 people have been questioned so far in the investigation, officials said Thursday.

Authorities extended France’s maximum terror alert from Paris into the northern Picardie region, focusing on several towns that might be possible safe havens for the two suspects, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the possibility of a new attack “is our main concern”. Tensions were running high in Paris, where 800 extra police patrolled schools, places of worship and transit hubs.

Timeline and search

Eight journalists, two police officers, a maintenance worker and a visitor were killed in Wednesday’s newspaper attack and 11 people were wounded, four of them critically. The publication had long drawn threats for its depictions of Islam, although it also satirized other religions and political figures.

By Thursday afternoon, authorities were focusing their search on the village of Longpont and the neighbouring towns of Villiers-Cotterets and Crepy-en-Valois northeast of Paris, according to an official with the national gendarme service.

Said Kouachi left his ID card in the getaway car used after the attack, leading police to his apartment in Reims, which they searched late Wednesday. Video showed technicians taking samples and fingerprints.

Two men resembling the suspects robbed a gas station in Villiers-Cotterets early Thursday, prompting police to swarm the site while helicopters hovered above. Large numbers of special police units arrived in Crepy-en-Valois amid reports the suspects had holed up there. A gendarme official later said the men had not yet been located.

A third suspect, Mourad Hamyd, 18, surrendered at a police station after hearing his name linked to the attacks, a Paris prosecutor’s spokeswoman said. His relationship to the Kouachi brothers was unclear.

Backlash and continued violence

Two explosions hit near mosques in France early Thursday, raising fears that the deadly attack at Charlie Hebdo was igniting a backlash against France’s large and diverse Muslim community. No one was injured in the attacks, which took place in Le Mans southwest of Paris and in Villefranche-sur-Saone, near Lyon, southeast of the capital.

Cazeneuve abandoned a top-level meeting to rush to a shooting in southern Paris that killed a policewoman and wounded a municipal worker Thursday morning. The shooter remains at large. Cazeneuve said no links between that incident and the newspaper killings had been found at this stage.

Concern is running high in Europe that jihadis trained abroad might stage attacks upon returning home. The French suspect in a deadly attack last year on a Jewish museum in Belgium had returned from fighting with extremists in Syria. And Mohammad Merah, who killed three soldiers and four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, received paramilitary training in Pakistan.

One witness to Wednesday’s attack said the gunmen were so methodical that he at first mistook them for an elite anti-terrorism squad.

Suspected links

Both al Qaeda and the Islamic State group have repeatedly threatened to attack France, which is conducting airstrikes against extremists in Iraq and fighting Islamic militants in Africa.

Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier, one of those slain, was specifically threatened in a 2013 edition of the al Qaeda magazine Inspire. A caricature of the Islamic State group’s leader was the last tweet sent out by Charlie Hebdo, minutes before the attack. Its feed has since gone silent.

One French police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, said the suspects were linked to a Yemeni terrorist network. And a witness, Cedric Le Bechec, wrote on Facebook that the attackers said as they were fleeing: “Tell the media that we are from al Qaeda in Yemen.”

The governor of a southern province in Yemen told The Associated Press on Thursday that four French citizens had been deported in the last four months. Governor Ahmed Abdullah al-Majidi said he didn’t have their names and there was no confirmed link between those deportations and the Charlie Hebdo attack.

A call for tolerance and freedom of expression

French President François Hollande   joined by residents, tourists and Muslim leaders   called for tolerance after the country’s worst terrorist attack in decades. At noon the Paris metro came to a standstill and a crowd fell silent near Notre Dame cathedral in a minute of silence to honour Wednesday’s victims.

“France has been struck directly in the heart of its capital, in a place where the spirit of liberty   and thus of resistance   breathed freely,” Hollande said.

Tens of thousands of mourners took to the streets of French cities on Wednesday evening after the shooting, chanting, “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie, which has also become a rallying cry on social media under the hashtag #jesuischarlie) and holding pens or copies of the magazine over their heads.

Similar rallies were held in capital cities around the world.

“The only thing we can do is to live fearlessly,” wrote Kai Diekmann, editor in chief of Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling daily. “Our colleagues in Paris have paid the ultimate price for freedom. We bow before them.”

In Tunisia, the birthplace of one of the slain cartoonists, Georges Wolinski, dozens paid homage in a candlelight vigil outside the French ambassador’s residence.

“These people were executed at point-blank range just because of drawings   drawings that didn’t please everyone and provoked anger and controversy but still were just drawings,” said journalist Marouen Achouri.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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