Paris shooting: home linked to suspect searched as Isis claims responsibility
Police in France have searched a property believed to be the family home of a known terror suspect who shot dead one policeman and seriously wounded two others in an attack two days before voting opens in an already tense presidential election.
The gunman stepped from a car and opened fire on a police van with an automatic rifle outside a Marks & Spencer store on the Champs Élysées at about 9pm on Thursday.
The attacker, a 39-year-old man widely named named as Karim Cheurfi, was known to French security services. He was shot dead by police while trying to flee on foot. A statement from the Isis propaganda agency, Amaq, said the attack was carried out by an “Islamic State fighter”.
After a series of atrocities that have killed more than 230 people in France over the past two years, authorities had long feared bloodshed in the run-up to polling day. The attack could bring security to the forefront of voters’ concerns in Sunday’s first round.
Police were searching a house in the eastern Paris suburb of Chelles early on Friday, believed to be Cheurfi’s family home. Police sources told local media the man had been arrested in February on suspicion of plotting to kill police officers but released because of lack of evidence.
Isis named the shooter as Abu Yusuf al-Beljiki, or “the Belgian”. A police arrest warrant issued earlier on Thursday and seen by Reuters news agency mentioned a dangerous individual who had entered France by train from Belgium on Thursday.
But the nationality of the attacker was uncertain on Friday morning. The Belgian federal prosector’s office said it had no information on the suspect nor evidence that Cheurfi was from Belgium.
In an interview with French radio, France’s interior ministry spokesman, Pierre-Henry Brandet, said police were hunting a second suspect in connection with the shooting, following a tip-off from Belgian security officials.
Le Parisien reported that Cheurfi had served 15 years in prison after being convicted of three attempted murders, two against policemen, in 2001, adding that the search address matched that of the owner of the car used in the attack.
The suspect was, however, not on the Fiche-S, the national list of people suspected of being a threat to national security.
The outgoing president, François Hollande, said on Thursday night he was convinced the shooting was a “terrorist act”. He paid tribute to the police and pledged “absolute vigilance, particularly with regard to the electoral process”.
The second police officer, critically injured when the gunman shot him in the back, was recovering in hospital.
Three members of the suspect’s family have been questioned by police.
Hollande was chairing a security cabinet meeting on Friday morning, part of government efforts to protect the vote, which is taking place under already heightened security with more than 50,000 police and soldiers mobilised and a state of emergency in place since 2015.
The interior minister, Matthias Fekl, said: “The sense of duty of our policemen tonight averted a massacre … they prevented a bloodbath on the Champs Élysées.”
It is difficult to predict the impact of the attack on the election, which polls suggest is too close to call. How the candidates judge the public mood and respond could well influence their chances.
Three of the frontrunners – the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and scandal-hit conservative François Fillon – cancelled events on Friday, the final day of campaigning.
The attack happened while the 11 first-round contestants were appearing on a live interview show on French television. Speaking before the shooting, Le Pen said security should be at the heart of the campaign. “We are suffering the consequences of a laxity that has continued for years,” she said.
Speaking later, the Front National leader repeated her call for Europe’s internal borders to be closed, saying she was “deeply angry” as well as sad for the police victims, “because not everything is done … to protect our compatriots. They need more than our compassion.”
Macron, who was interviewed on the show after news broke of the attack, said the first duty of France’s president was to protect, adding that the terror threat “will be a part of our daily lives over the coming years”. Fillon said the fight against terrorism must be the next president’s “absolute priority”.
Foreign leaders also responded to the attack. The US president, Donald Trump, said it “looks like another terrorist attack. What can you say? It just never ends.” His vice-president, Mike Pence, said the shooting was “the latest reminder that terrorism can strike anywhere at any time”.
France has been on its highest possible level of terror alert since the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks and the Nice truck attack of 2016. Thousands of troops and armed police have been deployed to guard tourist hotspots such as the Champs Élysées and other potential targets.
This week, two men were arrested in Marseille on suspicion of planning an attack before the election. A machine-gun, two handguns and three kilos of TATP explosive were found at a flat in the southern city, along with Isis propaganda material.
Polls have suggested Le Pen and Macron are the most likely candidates to go through to the second-round runoff on 7 May, but Fillon and the hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon are only two or three points behind, and up to 25% of voters have yet to make up their minds, meaning any two of the four could qualify._ VOA
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