Malian Muslim hailed for saving lives at Paris market
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A quick-thinking Malian employee who helped shield shoppers from a gunman at a Paris kosher store and then briefed police has been hailed as a hero in the wake of France’s deadliest terrorist attacks in decades.
Lassana Bathily’s striking story of life-saving courage filtered out in the days that followed the deadly hostage crisis at the Hyper Casher supermarket in eastern Paris.
The 24-year-old shop assistant was in the underground stockroom on Friday when gunman Amédy Coulibaly burst in upstairs, firing from a Kalashnikov.
“When he (the gunman) entered the store, people came rushing down saying there was an armed madman,” Bathily told FRANCE 24. “I thought the only option was to hide in the freezer, so I switched it off and got everyone inside.”
Bathily, who arrived in France at the age of 16 in 2006, said he tried to persuade some to follow him as he sneaked out of the building using a goods lift, but they were too scared to move.
“I knew the emergency exits so I took my chance, but if the gunman had seen me I would have been dead,” he said.
As he walked towards police with his hands up, the shop assistant was mistaken for the attacker, forced to the ground and hand-cuffed for over an hour.
Once police realised their mistake, he provided them with a key to open the supermarket's metal blinds and mount their assault.
Coulibaly, a Frenchman of Malian origin, was killed in the ensuing firefight with police, who also found four hostages dead inside the supermarket, apparently shot by the gunman when he entered the store.
Police sources have corroborated Bathily's account of the siege.
‘A medal for Lassana’
The Hyper Casher employee got a phone call from President François Hollande on Sunday, ahead of the huge rally that drew more than one million people to the streets of Paris.
There was also praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took part in the historic march, along with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.
“II want to express my appreciation to the Mali citizen who helped save seven Jews,” Netanyahu said during a visit to the French’s capitals Grand Synagogue later in the day.
Bathily’s heroism gave France a much-needed feel-good story at a time of grief and fear of backlash against France's Muslim population, which is Europe's largest.
French Muslim leaders have rushed to condemn the deadly attacks by Coulibaly and his accomplices Chérif and Said Kouachi, who killed 12 people in a brazen attack on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday before they were also shot dead in a gunfight with police two days later.
The Kouachi brothers have been linked with al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, while Coulibaly claimed to belong to the Islamic State group.
In his interview with FRANCE 24, Bathily described the kosher supermarket, where the vast majority of customers are Jewish, as a “second family”.
“No one has ever made a remark about my faith,” said the Muslim shop assistant, who is applying for French citizenship.
A social media campaign calling for Bathily to be given both citizenship and the Legion of Honour, France’s highest distinction, is in full swing.
A Facebook page created on Saturday for the supermarket hero has already garnered more than 15,000 likes, while thousands of people on Twitter have shared the hashtag #UneMedaillePourLassana (A medal for Lassana).