Holidaying US servicemen foil French train attack
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Off-duty US servicemen overpowered a gunman armed with a Kalashnikov who opened fire on a train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday in an attack that wounded several people. The motives of the suspect, who has been arrested, remain unknown.
Anthony Sadler, a student studying physical therapy at Sacramento State University, was travelling on a French train with two childhood friends ̶ Air Force serviceman Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos, a National Guardsman ̶ when the three heard a shot ring out.
"We heard a gunshot and we heard glass breaking behind us, and saw a train employee sprint past us down the aisle," Sadler said from France, describing the incident.
They then saw the gunman entering their train car.
"I didn't realise what was happening until I saw a guard run past. I looked back and saw a guy enter with a Kalashnikov. My friends and I got down and then I said, 'Let's get him'," said Skarlatos, 22, who returned from service in Afghanistan in July.
"As he was cocking it to shoot it, Alek just yells, 'Spencer, go!' and Spencer runs down the aisle," Sadler said. "Spencer makes first contact, he tackles the guy, Alek wrestles the gun away from him, and the gunman pulls out a box cutter and slices Spencer a few times."
Sadler said the three men were quickly able to subdue the suspect.
"He didn't say anything. He was just telling us to give back his gun. 'Give me back my gun! Give me back my gun!' But we just carried on beating him up and immobilised him and that was it," he said.
Stone, who had been slashed in the hand, then helped another passenger who had been stabbed in the throat and was losing blood, Sadler said.
Stone was to undergo surgery but he is doing "relatively well", Arras Mayor Frédéric Leturque told the AP on Saturday.
French Interior Minister Bernard Caezeuve said one passenger, a dual French-American national, was shot and wounded by the gunman.
Cazeneuve said Saturday that a French traveller “tried to overpower” the suspect before he began firing but was unsuccessful.
Another passenger, British national Chris Norman, 62, helped tie the gunman up after he was subdued.
Sadler, Skarlatos and Norman, who lives in France, received medals for bravery on Friday from the northern French city of Arras, where the train was diverted. French President François Hollande's office said in a statement that he would be meeting with those involved in the incident in the next few days at the presidential palace to "express France's gratitude".
The suspect, who was arrested when the train stopped at the northern French town of Arras, is a 26-year-old from Morocco or of Moroccan origin who was known to the intelligence services, French investigators said.
The motives for the shooting were not immediately known, although French prosecutors said counter-terrorism authorities had taken over the investigation. Belgian officials also announced that they would be opening an anti-terror probe into the attack.
Spanish intelligence sources said the suspect had lived in Spain and then moved to France before travelling to Syria and returning to France. He was known to the French authorities after being flagged as a potential jihadist by Spanish intelligence.
"He lived in [southern] Spain in Algeciras for a year, until 2014, then he decided to move to France," a Spanish counter-terrorism source told AFP. "Once in France he went to Syria, then returned to France."
Cazeneuve said that if the identity the suspect provided to the authorities is correct, he is a known radical Islamist.
“If the identity he has declared is confirmed, he is a 26-year-old man of Moroccan nationality identified by the Spanish authorities to French intelligence services in February 2014 because of his connections to the radical Islamist movement,” he said.
The gunman has been transferred to the Paris region from Arras in northern France where the incident took place. Cazeneuve said under the terms of his arrest the man can be held for four days without being charged.
The man opened fire at 5:50pm local time (3:50pm GMT), train operator Thalys said.
The gunman was arrested 10 minutes later when the train, with 554 passengers on board, stopped at Arras station where armed police were waiting, a spokesman for the French state rail company SNCF told AFP.
Passenger Patrick Arres, 51, said when the train pulled into Arras station he saw more than 30 armed police on the tracks. "They were looking for someone, people were scared."
Another passenger on the train, who asked to be identified only as Damien, 35, said he had heard the gunman shooting but initially thought the sound came from a toy.
"The man stopped between two carriages, fired, and it made a click-click-click sound, not at all like in the films," he said, still clearly shocked.
"Then the man, who was bare-chested, returned to carriage 12 and someone in a green T-shirt, with a shaved head, saw him and jumped on him and pinned him to the ground."
French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, who appeared in the 1986 cult film "Betty Blue" starring Beatrice Dalle, suffered minor injuries as he tried to activate the train's alarm, a spokesman for French rail operator SNCF said.
Anglade later told Paris Match that Thalys train employees had barricaded themselves in a staff car and ignored passengers’ pleas for help.
'We heard passengers screaming in English, 'He’s shooting! He’s shooting! He has a Kalashnikov!'' he told the magazine.
The gunman had probably boarded the train in Brussels, a police source said.
Witness Nicolas Martinage, 17, said he had seen the victims being taken off the train in Arras.
"There were two people with blood on them, one had a wound to the eye. The second was around 30 and had a bandage on his shoulder. Both men were on stretchers," he told AFP.
Interior Minister Cazeneuve praised the Americans who had subdued the suspect.
Speaking in Arras, Cazeneuve said the Americans "were particularly courageous and showed great bravery in very difficult circumstances", adding that "without their sangfroid, we could have been confronted with a terrible drama".
But he called for caution before jumping to conclusions as to motive. President Hollande said "everything is being done to shed light" on the motives for the shooting.
US President Barack Obama also praised the passengers for their actions.
"The president expressed his profound gratitude for the courage and quick thinking of several passengers, including US service members, who selflessly subdued the attacker," a White House official said. "Their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy."
"I condemn the terrorist attack on the Thalys [train] and express my sympathy to the victims," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Twitter of the incident, which occurred while the train was in Belgium.
French authorities have been on heightened alert after Islamic extremist attacks in January at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket left 20 people dead, including the three gunmen. In June, a lone attacker claiming allegiance to Islamic radicals beheaded his employer and set off an explosion at an American-owned factory in France, raising new concerns about other scattered, so-called lone wolf attacks.
In May last year, four people, including two Israeli tourists, were killed when a gunman opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)