The attack on France and its values that began in the blood-splattered offices of a satirical magazine played out part of its final act in a printworks last night as the two brothers sought for the Charlie Hebdo shooting were cornered and shot dead. They had told police: “We want to die as martyrs.”
An eight-hour siege on an industrial estate in the Paris satellite town of Dammartin-en-Goële where Chérif and Saïd Kouachi had fled, ended in a hail of gunfire and three heavy explosions at 5pm (4pm GMT) as the brothers emerged from a building spraying bullets. Elite French police who had surrounded the building answered in kind.
For one long minute as dusk fell, the sound of small arms fire filled the air in this usually ghostly-quiet town, followed by the dull echo of detonations. One last muffled explosion two minutes later followed by silence signalled that the lives of the Kouachis, who had been armed with AK-47 rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, were over.
A man who had been taken hostage by the brothers was freed.
While civilians rescued in both raids yesterday were described as hostages, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported last night that the Kouachi brothers, holed up in an industrial building in Dammartin-en-Goële, north-east of Paris, may not have been aware of the fact that someone else was trapped in the building with them.
Police are said to have received invaluable intelligence on the brothers’ movements within the building because a graphic designer had hidden in a box when they took the owner hostage. According to Edouard de Mareschal, the Figaro correspondent in Dammartin, at the end of the operation a 27-year-old graphic designer named Lilian sent a text message to his father saying that he had been hiding in the building. “I think they have killed everyone,” he wrote, asking his family to alert the police.
The brothers had been brought to ground on the industrial park so close to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport that flights could be seen landing overhead after they broke cover in a 72-hour manhunt and exchanged gun fire with police as they fled in a hijacked car.
The last stand of the men suspected of the pitiless murders of 12 people in Wednesday’s attack on the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, came as France lived the most grimly extraordinary day yet in the three-day trauma.
As the Kouachi brothers were surrounded by members of the same police special forces units which had 24 hours earlier been seeking them in woodland in the adjoining Aisne region, the supermarket siege began in Paris.
The third day of the dark drama which has confronted France with its worst terrorist crisis in decades – and sparked a defiant defence of its values – began shortly after 8am yesterday when Chérif, 32, and 34-year-old Saïd Kouachi emerged from their overnight hiding place in the Longpont Forest, 60 miles east of Paris.
Throughout Thursday the area had been flooded with forces from the two specialist units which form the core of France’s counter-terrorist strike force – Raid GIGN – after the French-Algerian brothers volunteered the first evidence of their whereabouts since the Charlie Hebdo killings by staging a robbery on a petrol station of the N2 trunk road heading out of Paris.
The elite units, which had never worked together before, spent the night combing the dense woodland with the help of gendarmerie, sniffer dogs and helicopters.
But once more the brothers, the French-born products of fractured childhoods following the deaths of their Algerian parents, slipped through the net put in place by the French state.
The men, brandishing AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, emerged on to a road near the village of Crépy-en-Valois and stopped the first vehicle they found – a grey Peugeot – driven by a woman. After forcing her out at gunpoint, the Kouachis, who in the last three years had turned from would-be rappers and small-time crooks into committed jihadis, sped off on the N2.
The alarm was raised after a schoolteacher came across the woman and within minutes the brothers were being pursued down the road towards Paris by a phalanx of gendarmerie vehicles. As the full might of a security operation which has seen some 55,000 French police called to duty was mobilised, a road block was put in place outside Dammartin-en-Goële. Minutes before 9am, having travelled some 30 miles, the Kouachis were forced to pull off the trunk road manned by armed officers and into the industrial park where staff at CTF Creation Tendance Decouverte, a small print company with five employees, were just beginning the working day.
The brothers burst in through the entrance, surprising a travelling salesman.The man, who gave his name as Didier, told the France Info radio station he had thought the men were police officers. He said: “I shook hands with one of them and said hello. The man said ‘Monsieur, we don’t kill civilians’.” It was only when he left the building that he realised he had most likely just escaped with his life. He added: “I am going to buy a lottery ticket. This is the luckiest day of my life.”
Around him meanwhile, all hell had broken loose. The brothers, who exchanged gunfire with police as they passed the road block were rapidly surrounded by their Raid GIGN pursuers and the area put under lockdown. Christelle Alleume, a worker in an adjoining building, said: “We heard shots and we turned around very fast. We had orders to turn off the lights and not approach the windows.”
Two nearby schools were put under orders to close all doors before pupils were later evacuated, while residents were told to lock their doors.
Stéphane Gonzales, who arrived to relieve a colleague on the industrial park, said: “This is not something you expect to find happening in your life: to be in the middle of a shootout with desperados.”
As a ghostly silence fell on the town, limited communication began with the men. Pierre-Henry Brandet, spokesman for the French Interior Ministry, said: “We want to end the siege as peacefully as we can.”
As night fell, it was abundantly clear that the Kouachi brothers had no wish to acquiesce in such plans. It emerged yesterday that Chérif, described by his former carers as the more impetuous of the two brothers, had travelled to Yemen in recent years to receive weapons training from the country’s al-Qaeda offshoot. In 2008, his brother was sentenced to three years in jail for trying to travel to Iraq for similar training.
He was stopped trying to board a plane bound for the Middle East while carrying documentation that included a guide on how to use an AK-47.
Yves Albarello, a local councillor was told the contents of one of the few conversations officers had with the Kouachis. He said they had had but one wish: “They want to die as martyrs.”
Shortly after 5pm, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi emerged from the printworks and brandished their weapons. They were shot dead but martyrdom – the swapping of life for death in pursuit of a just cause – still eluded them.
n President Barack Obama said yesterday that he hoped the immediate threat was now resolved and pledged US support to the people of France.
“I want the people of France to know that the United States stands with you today, stands with you tomorrow,” Mr Obama said during a trip to Tennessee.
“In the streets of Paris the world’s seen once again what terrorists stand for: they have nothing to offer but hatred and human suffering. And we stand for freedom and hope and the dignity of all human beings. And that’s what the city of Paris represents to the world.”
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