Normal day at the office that became global horror

People hold up placards at the site of the attack on the kosher market. Picture: Getty

People hold up placards at the site of the attack on the kosher market. Picture: Getty

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The murder of a satirical magazine’s staff set off a chain of terror and one of the biggest manhunts France has ever experienced

FOR the journalists arriving for work at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, it was supposed to be just another day at the office. Instead, it turned out to be their last day on earth.

A security officer directs released hostages. Picture: AP

A security officer directs released hostages. Picture: AP

As 15 editors, writers and cartoonists settled down for their weekly editorial conference in the morning, little could have prepared them for the horrifying massacre that was to claim their lives and shock the rest of the world.

The idle chit-chat was shattered when two masked gunmen, dressed in black and armed with Kalashnikovs, burst into the newsroom on the second floor of the Charlie Hebdo building at 10 Rue Nicolas-Appert in Paris.

Earlier the two murderers had been dropped off in the area by a black Citroen C3 by a third man. They were looking for the premises of the magazine, which in the past had gained notoriety for angering radical Muslims by publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

Their first act was to burst into the wrong building. They entered 6 Rue Nicolas-Appert. Realising their mistake, they moved down the street to the unprepossessing building housing number 10. Staff on reception on the ground floor were asked where the magazine’s office was. Then a shot rang out.

The sound of gunfire alerted the journalists on the second floor to the carnage that was about to unfold. The gunmen had shot the caretaker Frederic Boisseau, 42.

At first the men appeared unsure where to go. Despite initial uncertainty, they appeared to be well-trained and well-equipped terrorists. Both were clad in army-style boots, while one of them wore a sand-coloured vest packed with spare ammunition. There were also reports of one of them carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Growing impatient, they loosened off a couple more rounds as they tried to find the magazine office.

They then bumped into one of the magazine’s cartoonists Corinne Rey, who happened to have just returned to the building having picked up her daughter from a nearby crèche.

Rey, known as Coco, recalled that the two men threatened her and her daughter “violently” in perfect French. Under duress, she tapped in the entrance code to the office.

They strode straight to the conference room, threw open the door and shouted “Where’s Charb? Where’s Charb?” Charb was the nickname of Stephane Charbonnier, a cartoonist and the magazine’s editor since 2012.

Volley after volley of shots were fired. Charbonnier was one of ten people shot dead in a cold-blooded assault.

Amid the carnage, one of the writers, Laurant Leger, managed to sound the alarm. He was in the conference room as the murderers opened fire.

At 11:40 Leger called a friend. His message was stark. “Call the police. It’s carnage, a bloodbath. Everyone is dead.”

The gunmen were heard shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Greatest”, in Arabic, while they called out the names of the journalists.

As staff in a nearby nursery hid children under cots, the attackers sprinted free of the building.

Holding his AK47 in his left hand, one gunman raised his right index finger in a gesture that has been adopted by radical Islamists, including al-Qaeda.

The single finger alludes to the tawhid, namely the Muslim belief in the oneness and unity of God.

By now the Gendarmarie were on the scene and a police car attempted to thwart them by blocking the gunmen’s escape route down the narrow street Allee Vert.

Witnesses cowering on nearby rooftops saw the gunmen get out of the Citroen and shoot at the police care before driving off. Although the windscreen was riddled with bullets, the officers were unharmed.

The Citroen drove south down the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, before doubling back on the northern carriageway. Suddenly, the car stopped. The gunmen got out and carried out yet another act of unspeakable brutality.

An unarmed Muslim police officer, Ahmed Merabet, 42, was shot eight times. As Merabet lay suffering helplessly on the ground, he raised his hand and asked: “Do you want to kill me?”

One of the gunmen replied: “Okay chief,” before shooting him in the head.

Another policeman Charb’s 49-year-old bodyguard, an experienced officer from the VIP protection squad, was killed and a third policeman was seriously injured in the leg.

Once more the car drove away at high speed, running down a pedestrian, who was also said to be in a serious condition. The attackers made it as far as the junction of rue Sadi-Lecointe and rue de Meaux, in the 19th arrondissement, not far from the Place de Stalingrad, before abandoning the car when they crashed into another vehicle.

The attackers remained on the run by hijacking a grey Renault Clio, managing to give the police the slip just before midday.

Paris was on maximum alert as a major police operation got under way and another 500 officers were deployed on the streets of the French capital.

Meanwhile, the abandoned getaway Citroen was recovered. Inside, police investigators found Molotov cocktails and two jihadist flags.

Crucially, they also found an identity card belonging to Said Kouachi, 34. Police wasted little time in naming Said and his 32-year-old brother Cherif as the culprits.

It came to light that both were on no-fly lists because of previous terrorist links.

Further investigation revealed that the Kouachi brothers were part of a terrorist network that saw them become members of a jihadi recruitment cell run by a Paris hate-preacher Farid Benyettou.

They were also said to have been mentored by Djamel Beghai, once a henchman for Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada at Finsbury Park mosque.

It was established that Cherif Kouachi, 32, was a convicted Islamist who was jailed in 2008 and had long been known to police for militant activities.

In 2010, he was named in connection with a plot to spring an Islamist, Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, from jail. Belkacem used to be in the outlawed Algerian Islamic Armed Group (GIA) and was jailed for life in 2002 for a Paris metro station bombing in 1995 which injured 30 people. Said Kouachi, 34, was also named in the Belkacem plot, but the brothers were not prosecuted, for lack of evidence.

As the hunt continued, another man sought by the police, Hamyd Mourad, 18, handed himself in to police in the eastern city of Charleville-Mézières late that night after seeing his name circulating on social media.

As of last night, he had not been charged and it is unclear whether he is regarded as a suspect.

Meanwhile, police detained 16 people believed to be connected to the Kouachi brothers, including members of their family, in the towns of Reims and Charleville-Mézières, as well as in the Paris area. One of those detained was the wife of one of the brothers.

By now the full horror of what had happened in Paris was reverberating around the world. Thousands of people gathered in central Paris on Wednesday night to hold a vigil in defiant support of the victims.

Waving “Je Suis Charlie” posters, crowds demonstrated in support of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and in defence of free speech.

The trail of bloodshed took a dramatic twist after dawn broke the following day. As police intensified their search for the Kouachi brothers, a lone gunman shot two people in the southern suburb of Montrouge at 8:30 on Thursday.

The gunman, wearing a bullet proof vest and armed with a machine-gun and a pistol, shot dead a policewoman Clarissa Jean Phillipe and injured a man before fleeing in another Renault Clio.

Although the French authorities initially dismissed any suggestion of a link between the shooting and the Charlie Hebdo killings, their original view was to change.

Further investigation revealed that the Montrouge suspect knew the Kouachi brothers. The three men were all members of the same Paris jihadist cell that a decade ago sent young French volunteers to Iraq to fight US Forces.

Two-and-three-quarter hours after the policewoman was shot dead, the Kouachi brothers held up a petrol station in Villers Cotterets.

The suspects were seen, heavily armed and wearing balaclavas, driving north through Picardy before stopping at a petrol station north-east of Paris.

They drove off with assault rifles and rocket launchers visible in the back of their getaway car. The car itself was later found near the petrol station in nearby Crepy-en Valois. A massive manhunt began in a large wooded area nearby.

The hunt saw heavily armed police descend on the Foret de Retz, a woodland the size of Paris. By mid-afternoon and into the evening, armed police intensified their search by making house-to-house calls in nearby villages. But there was still no sign of the suspects.

With the hunt now on for three murderers, the third day of the chase witnessed yet more drama and a tragically bloody finale.

The first sign of the Kouachi brothers on Friday came at 9:20am when they hi-jacked another car. The female driver of the Peugeot 206 was spared when she was forced to hand over her vehicle in Montagny Sainte Felicite.

But the pursuing police were soon involved in a gun fight when they caught up with the brothers in Seine et Marne.

A three-mile car chase ensued down the N2 towards Paris. With the police in hot pursuit, the brothers arrived at a print works on an industrial estate at Dammartin-en Goele.

The suspects holed up inside the printing works and police reported that they had taken a 26-year-old man hostage.

A grim stand-off developed as police sent hundreds of officers, five helicopters and a tank to the scene.

Snipers took up positions on rooftops overlooking the scene. Meanwhile a hostage negotiator managed to get hold of the terrorists by phone.

There was a chilling moment, when they say that they “want to die like martyrs”.

As tensions rose at the print works, there was yet another startling development when shots were fired at 1:30pm in a Jewish grocery store in Porte de Vincennes, eastern Paris.

A separate hostage situation had developed. An armed man was holding 19 hostages inside the shop. The police revealed that the hostage-taker was Amedy Coulibaly, the man suspected of killing the police woman Clarissa Jean Phillipe the day before.

Coulibaly was another individual with a long criminal record. He was also a close associate of the Kouachis. Coulibaly was in the store with his wife Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, who was also thought to have been involved in the killing of the police woman.

A hostage negotiator managed to make contact with Coulibaly.

His demands were straightforward. The Kouachi brothers must be freed from the print works or Coulibaly’s hostages would die.

At the height of the siege, Coulibaly, 32, even gave an interview to a French TV station in which he swore allegiance to Islamic State and said the three-days of bloody carnage had been “synchronised”.

He also confirmed that he had shot the policewoman adding: “Them Charlie Hebdo; me the police.”

Meanwhile, back at the print works the minutes and hours were ticking by as the Kouachi brothers maintained their grip on the situation.

However, they were unaware that the police stationed outside were receiving intelligence from a brave worker who found himself hidden inside a cardboard box just a few yards from the hostage-takers.

For six hours Lilian Lepere,27, a graphic designer, sent text messages to his father.

“I am hidden on the first floor. I think they have killed everyone. Tell the police to intervene,” said one electronic message.

As the helicopters flew overhead and the snipers kept their sights trained on the building, Lepere provided crucial information that was passed to the police.

With the tension ramped up to an intense level, action had to be taken. A ten-second burst of gunfire at the print works, signalled the beginning of the attempt to end the Kouachi siege at 3:55pm.

Five explosions rent the air as heavily armed counter terror officers were seen moving towards the building. The brothers, perhaps forced out by tear gas canisters, come out firing their Kalashnikovs.

But they ran straight into the guns of the hundreds of armed officers and soldiers waiting outside.

Barely 12 minutes after the Kouachis had been killed, the kosher shop siege had its denouement.

Terrified shoppers were huddled together like frightened animals in a freezing cold storage room at temperatures of -3C in the basement, desperately hoping that Coulibaly would not stumble across them.

They had been shopping for kosher cakes and delicacies when they heard shots from the floor above. Trapped for five hours, they were in a state of terror as Coulibaly and his wife Boumeddiene dealt with their 19 hostages upstairs.

Unbeknownst to Coulibaly or his wife, police had been listening in to a phone that had not been placed back in its socket.

When police outside heard Coulibaly starting to pray at 4:12pm, they decided to strike and end the siege.

At around 5pm, explosions were heard with one lighting up the inside of the building. Two policemen were seen falling to the ground with leg wounds as a gun-fight erupted.

Hostages, including women and children, fled from the scene and a man clasped a child to his chest.

Four hostages were killed during the mayhem. Coulibaly also died.

His wife, however, was thought to have escaped during the chaos. Last night she was still on the run.

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