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French ‘hero’ gendarme who swapped himself for hostage dies

France24 screengrab | Col. Arnaud Beltrame succumbed to his injuries Saturday, March 24, 2018.

A French police officer who offered himself up to an extremist gunman in exchange for a hostage during a deadly supermarket siege in southwestern France has died of his injuries, the interior minister said Saturday.

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Col. Arnaud Beltrame was among the first officers to respond to the attack on the supermarket in the south of France on Friday. His death, announced by French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, raises the toll to four. The gunman was also killed, and 15 people were injured in the attack.

The gendarme, or policeman, had been left fighting for his life after being hit by gunfire inside the Super U supermarket in the town of Trèbes before elite police raided the premises and killed the attacker, who had burst into the store yelling "Allahu Akbar".

"Dead for his country. France will never forget his heroism, bravery and sacrifice," Collomb said in a Twitter message posted early Saturday.

Responding to the news of Beltrame’s demise, French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to “a fallen hero” who has earned “the admiration of the nation”.

Surreptitiously leaving cellphone on

The four-hour drama began at 10.30am local time on Friday morning, when the gunman first hijacked a car, killing one person in the southwestern citadel town of Carcassonne. He then opened fire on policemen on a morning jog, injuring one officer. He then drove to Trèbes and took hostages inside a supermarket.

Beltrame offered to trade places with a female hostage the attacker was holding as a human shield, after which he took her place and left his cellphone on, enabling security officials around the site to hear exactly what was going on inside the supermarket.

Christopher Bockman reporting from Trèbes

 

Officials said the decision was made to storm the building when they heard shots fired.

The 44-year-old gendarme, who once served in Iraq, was part of a team of security officials who were among the first to arrive at the supermarket scene. Most of the shoppers escaped after hiding in a cold storage room and then fleeing through an emergency exit.

In an interview with French radio station RTL Friday night, before the announcement of his death, Beltrame's mother, who was not named, said she was not surprised that her son had volunteered to be a hostage. “I knew it had to be him. He has always been like that. He’s someone, since he was born, who gives everything for his homeland," she said.

Asked if she was proud of him, she said he would have told her, "'I'm doing my job Mom, that's all.'"

IS group claims attack

Macron has said investigators will focus on establishing how the gunman, identified by prosecutors as Moroccan-born Redouane Lakdim, got his weapon and how he became radicalised.

On Friday night, authorities searched a vehicle and a building in central Carcassonne.

Lakdim was known to police for petty crime and drug dealing. He was under surveillance and since 2014 was on the so-called "Fiche S" list, a government register of individuals suspected of being radicalised but who have yet to perform acts of terrorism.

Despite this, Paris prosecutor François Molins said there was "no warning sign" that Lakdim would carry out an attack.

During the hostage drama, Lakdim shouted "Allahu akbar! (God is great)" and said he was a "soldier of the Islamic State" as he entered the Super U, where about 50 people were inside, Molins said.

The Islamic State (IS) group claimed the attack was in response to its call to target Western enemies -- as is customary when the assailant has pledged allegiance to the jihadists.

Security sources said Lakdim was born in Taza in northern Morocco and held French nationality. His partner, who lived with him in Carcassonne, has been detained, Molins said.

During the standoff, Lakdim requested the release of Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving assailant of the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead. The interior minister suggested, however, that Abdeslam's release wasn't a key motive for the attack.

Panic in the supermarket

Survivors of Friday's attack described scenes of panic in the supermarket as Lakdim entered the store.

"We heard an explosion -- well, several explosions," shopper Christian Guibbert told reporters. "I went to see what was happening and I saw a man lying on the floor and another person, very agitated, who had a gun in one hand and a knife in the other."

"I was five metres away from him," the store's security guard said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"He shot at me twice." The security guard said he was lucky the attacker, "shot badly".

Tough questions for French authorities

Trebes, a sleepy town of 5,000 people along the Canal du Midi, was on lockdown throughout Friday as helicopters swirled overhead and heavily armed and masked police carried out a massive operation in Lakdim's neighbourhood.

The fact that Lakdim had been monitored as a potential extremist will raise difficult questions for Macron's government as to how he slipped through the net.

"We had monitored him and did not think he had been radicalised," Interior Minister Collomb said after flying to the scene.

"He was already under surveillance when he suddenly decided to act."

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower dimmed its lights at midnight in a mark of respect for the victims and a minute's silence was held at the Stade de France before a football match between France and Colombia.

Friday's violence took place in a part of France still scarred by a killing spree in 2012 in the city of Toulouse and nearby Montauban where another jihadist, Mohamed Merah, shot dead seven people including three Jewish schoolchildren.

That assault marked the first of several big Islamist attacks in France since 2015, including the massacre at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the November 2015 attacks that killed 130 in Paris, and a summer 2016 truck attack during Bastille Day festivities in Nice.

The most recent assault came in October when a Tunisian man stabbed to death two women at Marseille's railway station, shouting "Allahu Akbar".

A state of emergency put in place just after the 2015 Paris attacks was lifted last October when Macron's centrist government passed a new law boosting the powers of security forces.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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