Heavily-armed military officials are going door-to-door in the countryside 50 miles outside of Paris, searching every home inside and out for the two brothers suspected in the killing of 12 people at the Paris offices of satirical news magazine Charlie Hebdo.
“The are literally knocking on every door, going to every house. They came inside our house, searched around, and they told we must evacuate,” one villager told NBC News.
The methodical search and raid of the area – the towns of Longpont and Crepy-en-Valois – is currently underway after dozens of police, military, vehicles, and two helicopters descended on a small town 50 miles northeast of Paris on Thursday, after the two suspects were reportedly sighted nearby.
Two men robbed a nearby gas station, reportedly armed with machine guns and wearing masks; the incident is being treated as ”the last known sighting” of the suspects. Police insist that there have been no sightings in Crepy-en-Valois, but that it’s being searched due to its proximity to the gas station.
“It’s clear [the police] are very nervous. There are dozens of them. It is a dangerous situation and the police are on edge because they don’t know where these guys are, and they don’t know who’s innocent and who’s a suspect,” another local resident evacuating the search area told NBC News.Police and soldiers in the Crepy-en-Valois area dressed in fatigues with ski masks identified themselves to NBC News as the NGIG, a French Army unit named the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group, said they were searching the area – farms and homes – one by one.
The raid is the latest in a now two-day massive manhunt for the suspects. The third suspect turned himself into the police and several people were detained overnight in connection to the massacre, French authorities said.
At the start of Thursday’s national day of mourning, a local traffic policewoman was shot dead at the city’s southern edge – Porte Chatillon in Montrouge, a suburb southwest of Paris. A street sweeper was also wounded in the incident, which took place around 8 a.m. local time. The shooter involved has not yet been detained, police confirmed; it’s not clear if it was linked to the Charlie Hebdo assault, but the incident exacerbated tensions in the city already reeling from violence.
French authorities’ “main concern” is another attack, France Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the French RTL Radio. “There is no such thing as zero risk.”
Already, France has mobilized 88,000 security personnel; 4,000 military personnel will be added tomorrow.
On Thursday, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve urged calm and unity.
“I would like to tell the French people that the government has taken steps to secure their safety,” he said, according to an NBC News translation. “We are not frightened and will remain united in the face of this tragedy.”
Protestors have begun rallying in solidarity with the French; 2000 rallied in Place de la Republique, where the Marselleis played to cheers. The people gathered have begun chants like “French are united” and “Charlie is not dead” and “We are not afraid.”
He also reminded people that while the attack may have been perpetrated in the name of Islam, it was not a representation of the majority of Muslims in France.
“I would like to note how strongly all the Islamic organizations in France denounced the attacks,” he said.
The Thursday morning shooting that killed one police officer “certainly is the kind of thing that puts people on edge,” The Daily Beast’s Chris Dickey said. “I just drove across town and I can tell you there’s police on practically every corner re-routing traffic, sirens going on around town. I can tell you there’s a sense of urgency, if not emergency.”
Flags have been lowered and a moment of silence was observed at noon local time.
“We need to stop the attackers, try them, and very severely punish them,” President Francois Hollande of France said Wednesday, adding, “Our best weapon is our unity.”
Brothers Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi, both French and in their 30s, were named and pictured by the French authorities early Thursday morning local time as police urged the public to help them search. Chérif Kouachi has a previous terrorism conviction for his involvement in sending radical fighters to Iraq; he served time in prison. The third and youngest terrorist attack suspect, at 18-years-old, was identified as Hamyd Mourad.
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The country’s terror system is on the highest level and security was bolstered around the city with 800 extra soldiers. They are stationed in places of worship, public transportation areas, and media offices.
There’s a fear that Paris’ large Muslim community would see reprisal attacks following the deadly massacre. The men yelled “Allahu Akbar” — or “God is great” — before fleeing to a black Citroen parked outside, Paris prosecutor Fracois Molins said Wednesday of the attack. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Muhammed and satire of Islam appears to have motivated the attack.
The Associated Press reported that a mosque in Le Mans, 125 miles outside of Paris, was hit with gunfire and training grenades overnight; no one was injured, and there have reportedly been other attacks on other mosques in France, too, in just the last 24 hours.
One guest, one maintenance personnel, eight journalists, and two police officers – identified on Thursday as the editor of Charlie Hebdo’s bodyguard Franck Brinsolaro, 42, and Ahmed Merabet, 28, an officer who responded to the incident on a bike, were killed in the massacre that rocked the French capital and the nation. Eleven others were wounded, four of whom were in critical condition, Molins said, adding that the attackers headed north from the Charlie Hebdo offices, abandoned the vehicle they fled in, and carjacked a Renault Clio.
In Washington, President Barack Obama strongly condemned the attack. ”I think that all of us recognize that France is one of our oldest allies, our strongest allies,” he said in a statement. Obama added that “our counterterrorism cooperation with France is excellent. We will provide them with every bit of assistance that we can going forward.”
On Thursday, the Department of Justice said Attorney General Eric Holder would travel to Paris to attend an international ministerial meeting on Sunday, after French Minister of the Interior convened it.
Obama offered Holland U.S. resources to help “identify, apprehend and bring to justice the perpetrators and anyone who helped plan or enable this terrorist attack,” according to a White House readout of a call Wednesday between the two leaders.
Charlie Hebdo has long courted controversy with satirical attacks on political and religious leaders, particularly when their cartoons depict the prophet Muhammad, because some Muslims interpret the Quran as prohibiting visual depictions of the prophet. In 2012, France was forced to temporarily close its embassies and schools in more than 20 countries amid fears of reprisals after the magazine printed cartoons of Muhammad. The Charlie Hebdo offices were also firebombed in 2011 after publishing a caricature of the prophet on its cover.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday emphasized the need to protect press freedom. “What [terrorists] don’t understand is they will only strengthen the commitment to that freedom and our commitment to a civilized world,” he said.
There was an international outpouring of support for France and freedom of the press. On Twitter, #jesuischarlie was trending worldwide. Journalists, students and many of the city’s residents were photographed holding signs bearing the slogan, which means “I am Charlie.” The message has flooded the streets of Paris in the form of homemade placards, as well as professionally printed signs and stickers. As night fell, crowds gathered for candlelight vigils in memory of those killed.
An illuminated sign atop a monument in Paris’ Plaza de la Republique stated, “Not afraid.”