Paris attacks: Threat high as French march 'for freedom and tolerance'

World leaders will join more than a million people on the streets of Paris today

John Lichfield
Sunday 11 January 2015 01:00
Hundreds of thousands of people march during a rally along the sea front in the Mediterranean city of Nice (AFP)
Hundreds of thousands of people march during a rally along the sea front in the Mediterranean city of Nice (AFP)

A fragile mood of relief and foreboding settled on France yesterday at the end of three days of terrorist mayhem which left 20 people dead.

Al-Qaeda in Yemen issued a warning that other "soldiers and messengers of Allah" stood ready to avenge the three Islamist gunmen killed by police at the end of twin sieges on Friday night.

The suspected "fourth terrorist", Hayat Boumeddiene, partner of the gunman who died in the kosher supermarket siege, was officially still being sought in France. But it emerged last night that she may have left the country eight days ago and have entered Syria through Turkey last Thursday.

Despite the continuing menace, more than a million people, led by President François Hollande, former President Nicolas Sarkozy and European leaders including David Cameron, will join three "freedom" marches through the streets of Paris today.

Amid unprecedented security, the marchers – and a score of similar demonstrations in other French cities – will gather for what French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, called "a rally to shout for love and freedom and tolerance which will remain in the annals of history".

The principal shout will be the slogan "Je suis Charlie." Since cartoonists and other employees of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered in Paris on Wednesday, the slogan has become a global symbol of defence of western values and resistance to radical Islam.

The presence of so many senior French and European politicians will make today's Paris rally – so big that it will split into three columns – a tempting target for terrorist attack. Extra soldiers and police have been drafted to Paris and other cities, on top of the 88,000 soldiers and police already mobilised in recent days.

Solidarity in Nice

Mr Valls promised yesterday that every possible measure would be taken to protect politicians, and other marchers, from attack. "This is not a moment to be afraid," he said. "That's what the terrorists want. We must be seen together, not to hide."

The leader of the Islamophobic, far-right Front National, Marine Le Pen, was the only French political leader not formally invited to join the Paris rally. President Hollande encouraged her to do so as a private citizen. Yesterday she called on FN supporters to boycott the Paris marches. She said she would take part in a rally in Beaucaire, a small, heavily pro-FN town in the Rhône delta. Her father Jean-Marie, the party's founder, announced "Je ne suis pas Charlie" and denounced the occasion as a creation of the media.

In contrast, Malek Merabet, brother of the murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet, made a tearful appeal for peace at a press conference. "My brother was very proud to be called Ahmed Merabet but to belong to the French police and defend the values of the republic," he said.

"Please stop starting wars and burning mosques and synagogues. That will not bring back the dead or bring peace to our families." An estimated 300,000 people took part in silent marches through a dozen French towns yesterday.

One of the deepest concerns of French security chiefs appeared last night to have eased. The alleged "fourth terrorist," Hayat Boumeddiene, is thought to have left France on 2 January and gone through Turkey to the Syrian border last week.

Siege hero Lassana Bathily

Ms Boumeddiene, 26, is the partner of Amedy Coulibaly, 32, the gunman who took 16 people hostage and murdered four shoppers at the Hyper Cacher supermarket at the Porte de Vincennes in eastern Paris on Friday afternoon.

She is known to have taken part in a jihadist training exercise in the Auvergne in 2009 with Chérif Kouachi, one of the two brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo. The brothers died in a hail of police bullets at the end of an eight-hour siege at a printworks in the village of Dammartin-en-Goële, near Charles de Gaulle airport on Friday evening.

Ms Boumeddiene was interrogated by French security officials in 2009 after posing for photographs in a veil while carrying a crossbow. She – like Chérif Kouachi at the time – was dismissed as a low-level threat and fell below the radar of French anti-terrorist intelligence. Since all four people involved in the terror wave of recent days were known to be jihadist sympathisers, French authorities are bound to face tough questions when the immediate crisis is past. Mr Valls said on TV on Friday night. "Seventeen people have been killed. That obviously means there were failures."

Ms Boumeddiene is also believed to have been the operational "link" between Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers. Chérif Kouachi was known to have befriended Coulibaly in prison in 2010, but French intelligence failed until last week to identify them as part of a jihadist cell.

An estimated 45,000 people amassed on the old harbour in the southern city of Marseille

This may have been because they communicated through their wives. The Paris chief prosecutor revealed on Friday night that more than 500 phone calls had been traced in the last year between Ms Boumeddiene and the wife of Chérif Kouachi. This woman – who has not been named – is one of five close relatives and associates of the Kouachi brothers who is in police custody. Ms Boumeddiene is still on the run.

In chilling interviews with the BFM TV station, recorded during the twin sieges, Chérif Kouachi and Coulibaly gave differing accounts of their allegiances and motivations. The interviews were not broadcast until after the sieges ended just after 5pm on Friday.

Coulibaly said that he was working for Islamic State. He said that he had planned his actions "in synchronisation" with the Kouachi brothers. They were to attack Charlie Hebdo. He was to attack the police.

Chérif Kouachi, 32, who claimed to have been trained and financed by al-Qaeda in Yemen, was calm, lucid and convinced of the righteousness of his cause. He asserted that his "Islamic code" forbids him from attacking civilians. A few hours later his associate, Coulibaly, fired at random at men, women and children in the kosher supermarket, killing four people instantly and wounding several others.

Pencils, representing the freedom of expression, placed in tribute in Nantes

"We are not killers. We are defenders of the Prophet," Chérif Kouachi told BFN TV. "We are not like you. We defend the Prophet. Then, there is no problem. We can kill. But we don't kill women. It is you that kill the children of Muslims in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria. That's not us. We have a code of honour, us, in Islam."

Early yesterday, one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in Yemen, Harith al-Nadhari, posted a video clip on the internet threatening France with vengeance. "Soldiers who love Allah and are His messengers are amongst you," he said. "They do not fear death. They seek martyrdom in the name of Allah."

The four people who died in the supermarket were named yesterday as Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen and François-Michel Saada. The death toll might have been higher. Half a dozen people, including a baby, took refuge in the shop's cold store. They were helped to do so by a shop employee identified as Lassana Bathily – a Muslim man of African origin.

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