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French terror suspect questioned as police seek motive for attack

Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, AFP | French police stand guard as investigators carry out a search at the suspect’s home in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, near the city of Lyon, on June 26, 2015

French authorities on Saturday questioned the 35-year-old delivery man of North African origin suspected of a grisly Islamist attack involving the beheading of his boss and an attempt to blow up a US-owned chemicals plant in southeastern France.

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President François Hollande, dealing with new security fears less than six months after 17 were killed by Islamist militant gunmen at satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish foodstore in Paris, said the incident clearly amounted to a terrorist attack.

Yassim Salhi is suspected of having rammed his delivery van into a warehouse of gas containers, triggering an initial explosion. He was arrested minutes later while opening canisters containing flammable chemicals, prosecutors said on Friday.

Police later found the head of the victim, the 54-year-old manager of the transport firm that employed the suspect, dangling from a fence at the site, framed by flags with written references to Islam.

Salhi, his wife, sister and a fourth person were being held for questioning over the weekend. Salhi was known to French authorities as a potential risk because he visited Islamists but there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack.

While an anti-terrorist inquiry has been launched, Paris public prosecutor François Molins cautioned against premature conclusions and said investigators had yet to fully understand what happened at the industrial zone in Saint Quentin-Fallavier, 30 kilometres south of the city of Lyon.

“Questions remain over the exact chronology of events, what happened when he arrived, the circumstances of the decapitation, the motivation and whether there were accomplices,” he said.

Three attacks in one day

The attack in France occurred on the same day as a gunman killed at least 38 people at a Tunisian beachside hotel and an Islamic State (IS) group suicide bomber killed two dozen and wounded more than 200 at a mosque in Kuwait.

But French authorities said there was no connection between the attacks, and there was no indication that the site had been attacked because it belonged to a US company, industrial gases and chemicals group Air Products.

“There is no other link other than to say that terrorism is our common enemy,” Hollande said, announcing a tightening of national security to levels he said were unprecedented in recent decades.

Unlike two of the gunmen behind the January attacks, Salhi does not have a criminal record, but the fact he was listed between 2006 and 2008 as someone at risk of radicalisation, and later came to the attention of intelligence services because of his links to radical Islamists, will spark local political debate.

‘Decapitation was meant to stir up emotions’

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, whose trip to South America was cut short due to the attack, told AFP the “horrific” act meant that it was all the more important for the French to stay true to their democratic values.

“This grisly decapitation, which was staged [for everyone to see] with flags, is something new in France,” he said, noting that it was designed to have an impact and “create strong tensions in French society”.

“French society must stay true to its values,” in a time when “it is put to the test, especially during a special period like Ramadan”.

He added that it is very difficult for a society to have to live under the threat of attacks for several years, in particular as “the question isn’t about if there will be a new attack, but when”.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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