2 armed suspects 'cornered in house' in northern France: Media reports

2 armed suspects 'cornered in house' in northern France: Media reports

PARIS - Two brothers wanted for the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have been cornered by security officers in a house in northern France, French media and a police source said late on Thursday.

Cherif Kouachi, 32, and his 34-year-old brother Said, had fled to the house after stealing food and petrol at a roadside petrol station near Villers-Cotterets in the Aisne region, media reports and a source close to the manhunt said.

French security forces including RAID, the anti-terrorist unit of the French police force, and the GIGN, a paramilitary special operations unit, have been deployed in Villers-Cotterets "where a car was abandoned after being used by the two suspects, who were identified by a witness," the source told AFP.

Earlier, the manager of the robbed petrol station had "recognised the two men suspected of having participated in the attack against Charlie Hebdo", the source close to the manhunt said. They were described as "masked, with Kalashnikovs" and what appeared to be a rocket-launcher.

Bruno Fortier, the mayor of neighbouring Crepy-en-Valois, said helicopters were circling his town and police and anti-terrorism forces were deploying en masse. "It's an incessant waltz of police cars and trucks," he told Reuters, adding that he could not confirm reports the men were holed up in a house in the area.

Paris police had earlier issued arrest warrants for the duo, saying they were "likely armed and dangerous". The police also launched an appeal to the public for information, releasing pictures of the brothers. The authorities told CNN affiliate BFMTV that one of them also left behind an identification card at the scene of the shooting. "It was their only mistake," said Dominique Rizet, BFMTV's police and justice consultant, adding that the discovery helped the investigation. Some reports claimed the ID card was found in a getaway car which the police impounded.

The third suspect - 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad - had earlier surrendered to police. A spokesman for the Paris prosecutor said that Mourad had walked into a police station in Charleville-Mezières, about 145 miles north-east of Paris, and surrendered, New York Times reported. "He introduced himself and was put in custody," Agnès Thibault-Lecuivre was quoted as saying.

As the police hunt for the suspects, a fresh shoot-out broke out just outside Paris on Thursday. A man wearing a bullet-proof vest fired on police officers with an automatic rifle, killing a policewoman and seriously injuring a city employee. The assailant was on the run, said Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who rushed to the scene of the incident in the Montrouge suburb, near Porte de Chatillon, outside the south of Paris.

It is unclear if the incident is linked to the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Montrouge mayor Jean-Loup Metton said the policewoman and a colleague went to the site to deal with a traffic accident. A car stopped and a man got out and shot at them before fleeing. Witnesses said the shooter fled in a Renault Clio car.

Police sources said he had been wearing a bullet-proof vest and had a handgun and assault rifle. He was dressed in black and sported a shaved head, according to Le Figaro. It said he was known to the police, with a long list of at least nine previous offences. It did not said what those offences were.

However, one police officer at the scene told Reuters the man did not appear to fit the bill of the Charlie Hebdo shooters.

Meanwhile, more information on the two brothers wanted for the Charlie Hebdo attack has emerged.

The Kouachi brothers were from the Paris region, while Mourad was from the north-eastern city of Reims, said reports. Cherif Kouachi was sentenced to three years in prison in 2008 in Paris for helping to funnel prospective militant fighters from France to Iraq. He served 18 months, with the remainder of his sentence suspended.

A raid by France's elite anti-terrorist unit was conducted late on Wednesday night local time in the north-eastern city of Reims as part of the hunt for the gunmen who attacked the satirical publication.

French President Francois Hollande had declared Thursday a national day of mourning. More than 100,000 people took to the streets across France on Wednesday to express their outrage, many carrying banners reading: "Je suisi Charlie" which means "I am Charlie" while the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie was trending worldwide.

Other countries also condemned the attack.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore "strongly condemns this savage act of terror". "It is yet another reminder of the threat posed by terrorism to all civilised societies, and that it is totally wrong to invoke religion to justify such savagery," he wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday. He also wrote to French Prime Minister Manuel Valls to convey his condolences.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam extended his condolences to France's President Francois Hollande in a letter on Thursday. "As France mourns the victims, may the perpetrators be brought to justice swiftly, and may the wounded have a speedy recovery," he wrote.

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said "this incident is another painful reminder that all countries face a common threat from terrorism".

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the authorities have stepped up security patrols and surveillance.

The hooded attackers stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly known for lampooning Islam and other religions, in the most deadly militant attack on French soil in decades.

Famous French cartoonists Cabu, Charb, Tignous and Wolinski were among the 12 killed in the attack. Charb, or Stephane Charbonnier, was the publishing editor of the magazine. Another 20 people were injured, some critically.

The attack took place during the weekly's editorial meeting when all the journalists were supposed to be present, according to reports.

French Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said all measures were being taken "to neutralise these three criminals who have committed this barbaric act". One of the men was captured on video shouting "Allah!" as four shots rang out. Two assailants were then seen calmly leaving the scene. A police official said the gunmen fled towards the eastern Paris suburbs.

A short amateur video broadcast by French television stations shows two hooded men outside the building. One of them sees a wounded policeman lying on the ground and strides over to him to shoot him dead at point-blank range. The two then walk over to a black saloon car and drive off.

In another clip on Television station iTELE, the attackers are heard shouting: "We have killed Charlie Hebdo. We have avenged the Prophet Mohammad."

A video purportedly showing the gunmen was posted on YouTube.

Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) is well known for courting controversy with satirical attacks on political and religious leaders and has published numerous cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad. The last tweet on its account mocked Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the militant Islamic State, which has taken control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria.

French President Francois Hollande said: "An act of indescribable barbarity has just been committed today in Paris," he said. "Measures have been taken to find those responsible, they will be hunted for as long as it takes to catch them and bring them to justice."

Sirens could be heard across Paris as Prime Minister Manuel Valls said security would be ramped up at transport hubs, religious sites, media offices and department stores.

French schools, consulates and cultural centres in 20 Muslim countries were briefly closed along with embassies for fear of retaliatory attacks.

'These guys were serious'

Police union official Contento described the scene inside the offices as "carnage".

A source close to the investigation said two men "armed with a Kalashnikov and a rocket-launcher" stormed the building in central Paris and "fire was exchanged with security forces". The source said gunmen had hijacked a car and knocked over a pedestrian as he sped away.

Witness Benoit Bringer told TV station iTELE: "Two black-hooded men entered the building with Kalashnikovs (rifles). A few minutes later we heard lots of shots."

One man, who witnessed the attack, described a scene like "in a movie". "I saw them leaving and shooting. They were wearing masks. These guys were serious," said the man who declined to give his name. "At first I thought it was special forces chasing drug traffickers or something."

An employee at a nearby daycare centre said he was walking with children when panic erupted. "People leaned out of the window and yelled at me to get off the pavement," he said. "We got out of there very fast," said Jean-Paul Chevalier, 56. "People were panicking. I heard shooting."

Death threats

Charlie Hebdo gained notoriety in February 2006 when it reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had originally appeared in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, causing fury across the Muslim world. Its offices were fire-bombed in November 2011 when it published a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad under the title "Sharia Hebdo".

Despite being taken to court under anti-racism laws, the weekly continued to publish controversial cartoons of the Muslim prophet. In September 2012, Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of a naked Prophet Muhammad as violent protests were taking place in several countries over a low-budget film, titled Innocence Of Muslims, which was made in the United States and insulted the Prophet.

Editor-in-chief Charbonnier had lived under police protection after receiving death threats.

The paper's last tweet on Wednesday morning before the attack included a cartoon of Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Happy New Year wishes.

This week's front page featured controversial author French Michel Houellebecq, whose latest book Soumission or Submission, which imagines a France in the near future that is ruled by an Islamic government, came out on Wednesday. The book has widely been touted as tapping into growing unease among non-Muslim French about immigration and the rise of Islamic influence in society.

Countries condemn attack

The attack took place at a time of heightened fears in France and other European capitals over fallout from the wars in Iraq and Syria, where hundreds of European citizens have gone to fight alongside the radical Islamic State group. In a sign of such tensions, a media group's office in Madrid was evacuated later in the day after a suspicious package was sent there.

France last year reinforced its anti-terrorism laws and is already on alert after calls from Islamist militants to attack its citizens and interests in reprisal for French military strikes on Islamist strongholds in the Middle East and Africa.

US President Barack Obama has condemned the deadly shooting, calling it a terrorist attack against its ally. "We are in touch with French officials and I have directed my administration to provide any assistance needed to help bring these terrorists to justice," he said in a statement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among European leaders condemning the shooting. "This abominable act is not only an attack on the lives of French citizens and their security. It is also an attack on freedom of speech and the press, core elements of our free democratic culture.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain stood with its ally against "all forms of terrorism". Earlier, Cameron said in a Twitter message that the killings were "sickening", while Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he was "appalled" to hear about the "apparent terrorist attack".

The head of the French Muslim Council has called the attack a "declaration of war". "It's a thunderous declaration of war," Mr Dalil Boubakeur, who is also imam of the mosque of Paris, was quoted as saying by Le Figaro newspaper. "The times have changed. We're entering a new phase of this confrontation," he said.

Another imam of the greater Paris region also expressed his outrage over the shooting. Said Mr Hassen Chalghoumi, imam of the Drancy mosque in Paris's Seine-Saint-Denis northern suburb: "I am extremely angry. These are criminals, barbarians. They have sold their soul to hell. This is not freedom. This is not Islam and I hope the French will come out united at the end of this."

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