France pays tribute to victims of jihadist attack

AFP , Sunday 25 Mar 2018

Trebes, France
A general view shows gendarmes and police officers at a supermarket after a hostage situation in Trebes, France, March 23, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

Mourners in a rural French town rocked by a deadly Islamist attack will hold a mass on Sunday to pay tribute to the victims, including a policeman hailed a hero for offering himself in place of a hostage.

Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, 44, was shot and stabbed after taking the place of a woman whom Radouane Lakdim had been using as a human shield during his attack Friday on a supermarket in the small town of Trebes.

A national tribute will be held at a later date for Beltrane, who President Emmanuel Macron said had "died a hero" and deserved "the respect and admiration of the whole nation".

Following the worst jihadist attack of his presidency, Macron has called a meeting later this week of the security services responsible for monitoring individuals suspected of radicalisation.

Meanwhile, a mass will be held at 10:30 am (0830 GMT) Sunday in Trebes, where Lakdim carried out his final attack on a supermarket.

The bishop of Carcassonne and Narbonne will celebrate mass in the Church of Saint-Etienne to honour the four killed and three wounded in the attacks claimed by the Islamic State group.

Lakdim, 25, had been placed on a watchlist, but ultimately authorities concluded the Moroccan-born French national did not pose a threat.

'Horrible attack' 

Investigators found notes at Lakdim's home in the nearby town of Carcassonne which referred to IS group , a legal source said, including a hand-written letter in which he claimed allegiance to the jihadist group.

His girlfriend and a 17-year-old friend were being held in custody as investigators sought to understand events leading up to the attacks.

Lakdim, who was armed with a gun, knife and homemade explosive devices according to a security source, was shot dead as police moved in to end the siege of the Super U supermarket where he had holed up after a shooting spree in nearby Carcassonne.

Earlier Friday the gunman had hijacked a car in Carcassonne and shot the two people inside, killing the passenger and leaving the Portuguese driver in a critical condition.

He also shot and wounded a police officer out jogging.

Trebes, France
Timeline of three attacks in Carcassonne and Trebes, southern France, on Friday, followed by a hostage-taking in a supermarket that ended with the hostage taker being shot dead by police (Photo: AFP)

Lakdim had already shot dead the supermarket's butcher and a customer when Beltrame offered to take the place of a woman he had taken hostage.

Lakdim, a petty criminal who was on a watchlist over fears he had been radicalised, shot and stabbed the policeman before he was himself killed by anti-terror officers.

Beltrame died of his wounds early Saturday, becoming the fourth victim in the shooting spree.

World leaders paid homage to the slain officer, with British Prime Minister Theresa May tweeting that his "sacrifice and courage will never be forgotten".

US President Donald Trump denounced the "horrible attack" and Macron thanked him and the American people for their "solidarity".

"We honour the victims and the hero who gave his life to save others," Macron wrote on Twitter.

Beltrame's brother Cedric said the policeman would have known all too well the risk he was taking.

"He certainly knew he didn't stand a chance," he said. "He gave his life for another."

Petty criminal 

The attack has rocked Trebes, a sleepy town of 5,000 located on the picturesque Canal du Midi.

Residents flocked Saturday to lay flowers in front of the Super U, which remained closed, and to the police barracks in Carcassonne.

"We thought this only happened in big towns," said a 52-year-old restaurant-owner who gave her name as Khadija.

The shootings come as France, part of the US-led coalition fighting IS group, remains on high alert following a string of deadly attacks that have killed more than 240 people since 2015.

Lakdim fit a familiar profile as a petty criminal who had turned to extremism.

A small-time drug-dealer, his rap sheet included convictions for carrying a banned weapon and for drug use. He spent a month in jail in 2016.

"He had been on a watchlist for his radicalisation and links to the Salafist movement," said top anti-terror prosecutor Francois Molins.

According to a source close to the investigation, Lakdim had hinted at travelling to Syria in 2014, but did not go.

During the attacks, he demanded the release of certain prisoners -- notably, according to a security source, Salah Abdeslam, prime suspect in the November 2015 Paris terror attacks.

IS group claimed Friday's attack was in response to its call to target Western enemies, as is customary when the assailant has pledged allegiance to the jihadists.

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