WHEN salesman Didier arrived for a meeting at the offices of the Creation Tendance Decouverte plant in the town of Dammartin at 8.30 yesterday, he was greeted by the manager, Michel – and an armed man.
Assuming his client’s companion was a police officer, he walked up and shook his hand. The man was bewildered by his gesture, seemingly sufficiently to save the saleman’s life.
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“Get out. We don’t kill civilians,” he barked. Michel also told him to go. Didier fled. Michel closed the door behind him.
“I was in front of the door. I shook Michel’s hand and I shook the hand of one of the terrorists,” he recalled.
He had a lucky escape. Michel was less fortunate – held hostage by France’s two most wanted men for eight hours before managing to escape as his captors exchanged fire with security services before being shot dead.
The incident was just one of yesterday’s developments in a terrorist nightmare which has shaken France to its very core. Yesterday morning, France woke up to the news that Cherif and Said Kouachi, the two brothers behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre, had been located following an overnight manhunt by 80,000 officers after the pair fled in a hijacked Peugeot.
Security forces had them surrounded on a business park just seven miles from France’s biggest airport, Charles de Gaulle.
Police helicopters circled overhead and convoys of specialist security forces, many wearing balaclavas, began to descend on the scene.
Christelle Alleume, who works across the street from Michel’s printing firm, was enjoying her morning coffee break when she was startled by a round of gunfire. “We heard shots and everyone was afraid,” she said. “We had orders to turn off the lights and not approach the windows.”
As police attention focused on Dammartin, a second drama was unfolding closer to central Paris.
Not long after noon at the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes, shoppers were preparing for the Jewish Sabbath, which began at sunset last night.
The store was packed with householders buying foods which could be eaten on the Sabbath day, when devout followers are barred from purchasing anything or even cooking. The checkouts were busy when a man burst in.
“You know who I am!” he shouted, before opening fire on shoppers, which included a number of women and children.
French police took the unusual step of releasing photographs of a man called Amady Coulibaly, alongside his girlfriend Hayat Boumeddiene, who, they said, were wanted for Thursday’s murder of policewoman Clarissa Jean-Philippe. The pair were, they added, armed and dangerous. It was soon to become clear that Coulibaly was the gunman inside the supermarket.
As up to 15 terrified hostages cowered in the building, Coulibaly took time to communicate with French TV station BFMTV, where he told journalists, in an interview which was not broadcast while the incident was ongoing, that he had been coordinating his attack with the Charlie Hebdo suspects and he was from the Islamic State jihadist group.
Inside the shop, one woman being held by Coulibaly managed to make contact with her daughter. “I am in the shop, I love you,” she told her.
The Kouachi brothers had also communicated with the TV station. At around 4.15, for reasons not yet clear, they decided to end the stand-off.
Guns blazing, they broke out of the printing plant to face security services. Local residents reported hearing loud gunfire, and explosions were seen by onlookers.
Remarkably, Michel survived and was led to safety.
At around 4.30pm, just minutes after the raid in Dammartin-en-Goele and amid a live media blackout, the Paris supermarket was engulfed in bright orange flames.
Hostages, including a small boy, were seen being escorted from the building, with their arms around each other. Local resident Monika Berlot described the response by the emergency services. She said: “Police cars have just rushed back again to the scene, along with ambulances, many people, hundreds, still watching behind the do not cross line.”
Usually unflappable, the incidents of recent days have shaken even the most stoic of Parisians.
Yesterday, Ronald Cullens, who is from Dollar, Clackmannanshire but lives in Paris, told how he and others in the French capital had grown accustomed to the sight of armed policemen.
He said: “Overall, I would say there is an edginess to the city that’s not normally there.
“I was walking back from work yesterday and a car horn honked, and I got such a fright. It was at that point I realised how tense I was.
“When the attack on Charlie Hebdo first happened, we thought it was a terrible tragedy and a terrible attack, but at the point that the hostages were taken, I could see that people were beginning to panic and wonder if things were sliding out of control.”
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