Train attack heroes awarded France’s Légion d’Honneur
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President François Hollande on Monday bestowed France's highest honour on a group of Americans and a Briton who overpowered an attacker loaded with guns and ammunition on a crowded high-speed train bound for Paris.
Hollande pinned the Légion d'Honneur medal on US Airman Spencer Stone, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and university student Anthony Sadler. The three men tackled the gunman on Friday as he moved through the train armed with an assault rifle and an automatic pistol. A British businessman, Chris Norman, also helped subdue the attacker.
In a ceremony at the Elysée Palace, the French president saluted the four men for preventing “carnage” on the high-speed train.
The men showed "that faced with terror, we have the power to resist", said Hollande.
"You also gave a lesson in courage, in will, and thus in hope,” he said.
"Since Friday, the entire world admires your courage, your sangfroid, your spirit of solidarity. This is what allowed you to, with bare hands - your bare hands - subdue an armed man. This must be an example for all, and a source of inspiration," the French president added.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and the US ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, attended the ceremony along with the head of French rail firm SNCF.
The American trio, casually dressed in polo shirts and khakis against the backdrop of the highly formal presidential palace, appeared slightly overwhelmed as they received France's highest distinction.
The Légion d'Honneur was established by Napoleon in 1802 to commend civilians and soldiers for exceptional merit in the service of France.
"These days you see a lot of celebrities pick up the medal (...) but the actions these men were rewarded for are perhaps the ideals to which Napoleon aspired when he created the award," FRANCE 24's Douglas Herbert reported from the Elysée.
Anti-terror investigators are questioning the alleged attacker, 25-year-old Moroccan national Ayoub el Khazzani, who boarded the high-speed train in Brussels armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, ammunition and a box-cutter.
Witnesses say he opened fire, injuring a man before being wrestled to the floor and subdued by the three US passengers aided by the Briton.
The gunman had earlier been confronted by a French passenger but managed to get away and fire at least one shot, wounding a French-American traveller in his 50s. Both passengers will also receive the Légion d’Honneur.
'Football and fishing'
Khazzani is said to have told investigators he is "dumbfounded" by accusations he was intending to carry out a terror attack, and insists he was only trying to rob passengers.
He said he merely stumbled upon a weapons stash in a park in Belgium and decided to use it to rob passengers, according to Sophie David, a lawyer assigned to his case when he was taken off the train in Arras, northern France.
"He is dumbfounded that his act is being linked to terrorism," David told BFM-TV, adding that Khazzani said he was homeless.
Khazzani's father, meanwhile, described his son on Sunday as a "good boy" who preferred talking about "football and fishing" to politics.
"I have no idea what he was thinking and I have not spoken to him for over a year," Mohamed el Khazzani told British newspaper the Daily Telegraph in Algeciras, Spain.
Under French law, suspects in terrorism-related investigations can be questioned for up to 96 hours, meaning Khazzani could be held until Tuesday evening.
Intelligence services in Belgium, France, Germany and Spain have previously flagged him as an Islamic extremist.
A Spanish counter-terrorism source said Khazzani had lived in Spain for seven years until 2014. He came to the attention of Spanish authorities for making hardline speeches defending jihad.
Spanish intelligence services say he went to France, from where he travelled to Syria, but the suspect has reportedly denied going to the conflict-ridden country where the Islamic State group controls large swaths of territory.
‘Please do something’
One of the Americans who overpowered him told a press conference on Sunday that if Khazzani had known how to handle guns, he could have killed many people.
"He clearly had no firearms training whatsoever," Skarlatos, 22, told reporters at the US ambassador's residence in Paris.
"If he knew what he was doing or even got lucky and did the right thing, he would have been able to operate through all eight of the (ammunition) magazines and we probably wouldn't be here today along with a lot of other people," the National Guardsman added.
Sadler, 23, who was travelling with the two off-duty US servicemen, dismissed suggestions that Khazzani was not trying to kill anyone.
"It doesn't take eight magazines [of bullets] to rob a train," he said.
The Americans said they had reservations in the first class carriage where the attack took place, but could not initially find their seats.
They only moved to the carriage half an hour into the journey because the wireless Internet was poor and they were seeking a better connection.
Stone, 23, who serves in the US Air Force, reached the gunman first and was slashed in the neck and on the eyebrow and almost had his thumb sliced off with a box-cutter.
"The gunman would have been successful if my friend Spencer had not gotten up," said Sadler. "I want that lesson to be learned. In times of terror like that to please do something. Don't just stand by and watch."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)