Police manhunt closes in on Charlie Hebdo killers

Heavily armed members of the French police special forces walk into Corcy, in northern France. Picture: Getty
Heavily armed members of the French police special forces walk into Corcy, in northern France. Picture: Getty
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A MASSIVE manhunt for two brothers wanted over the Paris magazine massacre was last night focused on a densely wooded stretch of countryside north-east of the French capital.

Teams of heavily armed police scoured the area around a petrol station where Said and Cherif Kouachi – the main suspects in Wednesday’s attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – were said to have been seen yesterday.

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Thousands of officers hunting the brothers narrowed in on dense woodland in the 30,000-acre Foret de Retz about 50 miles outside Paris, while searches were carried out in the picturesque towns of Villers-Cotterets, Longpont and Corcy. The tension gripping France heightened after a second gun attack in the space of 24 hours, as authorities revealed they were treating the murder of a policewoman as a terror attack.

The trainee officer, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, 27, was shot as she dealt with a road traffic incident at Montrouge, a south-western suburb of Paris, late on Wednesday.

A man who, like the gunmen who killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, was wearing a black mask and bulletproof vest, jumped from his car and shot her with a machine gun before driving away. A street cleaner who stepped in to help was also shot.

Authorities said the shootings were being classed as terror-related but that the incident was not directly linked to Wednesday’s shooting at Charlie Hebdo.

The Kouachi brothers, who were described by officers as “armed and dangerous”, were spotted driving a Renault Clio at an Avia petrol station in the Aisne region north of Paris yesterday.

They were identified after stealing food and petrol, it was claimed. The manager of the petrol station said the attackers fitted the description of the two men, and were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

The garage was sealed off and armed police patrolled the surrounding area while helicopters hovered overhead. Local media said special forces and police units had been dispatched to the scene.

Benoit Verdun, a hotel worker in the area, said he had been told to close his hotel. He said: “There are lots of policemen. They are asking people, ‘Have you seen anybody?’ They have big guns with them.”

He added: “The forest is bigger than Paris – it is very big and very wide.”

Later, large numbers of special police units arrived in Crepy-en-Valois amid reports the suspects were holed up there.

A third suspect, Mourad Hamyd, 18, surrendered at a police station after hearing his name linked to the attacks, a Paris prosecutor’s spokeswoman said. His relationship to the Kouachi brothers was unclear.

One French police official said the suspects were linked to a Yemeni terrorist network.

Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group have repeatedly threatened to attack France, which is conducting air strikes against extremists in Iraq and fighting Islamic militants in Africa.

France also angered Islamists when it banned women from wearing the full veil or niqab in public places under rules which prohibit people from wearing clothing which covers the face.

French president Francois Hollande warned yesterday that the possibility of a new attack “is our main concern” and announced several overnight arrests. He also declared the killing of the policewoman to be a “terrorist act”.

Paris has been placed on the highest terror alert and extra troops have been deployed to guard media offices, places of worship, transport and other sensitive areas.

There were two explosions near mosques in France early yesterday morning, raising fears the attack at Charlie Hebdo was igniting a backlash against France’s large and diverse Muslim community. No-one was injured in the attacks, one in Le Mans south-west of Paris and another, at a kebab shop, in Villefranche-sur-Saone, near Lyon, south-east of the capital.

A Muslim family was shot at in their car in Caromb, in the southern region of Vaucluse.

Cherif Kouachi – a former pizza deliveryman who had a prior terror conviction and a fondness for rap – and his brother Said, potentially travelling with a third accomplice, fled the scene on Wednesday morning in a carjacked vehicle.

They had massacred 12 people including five well-known cartoonists at the magazine, which had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad.

Seven people believed to be connected to the Kouachi brothers have been detained in the towns of Reims and Charleville-Mezieres, as well as in the Paris area, police said last night.

Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, last night called for “national unity” in France as the crisis continued, and said a total of nine people were in custody and more than 90 witnesses had been interviewed.

“We need to know how to retain this consensus,” he said. “National unity is vital at such a time because the plans of the terrorists go beyond violence and seek to sow fear.

“We need to be calm and show that we are not afraid and that we will remain united in this trial, and so the government condemns violence and profanations which are being levelled against some mosques since yesterday evening – fortunately without any victims.”

He added: “We will not tolerate any act, any threat aimed against a place of worship or any hostile manifestation against French people because of their origin or their religion. The authors of such actions should know that they too will be arrested and punished.”

The Vigipirate plan – the French national security alert system – was raised on Wednesday to its highest level, “alerte attentat”, across the entire Ile-de-France region around Paris.

That threat level has now been extended to cover Picardy where the suspects are said to have been spotted. In total more than 88,000 security personnel have been deployed there to reflect the heightened alert.

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