Hollande blames ISIL for terrorist strikes in Paris that left over 100 dead. Police raids in Brussels, Greeks admit one attacker from Syria crossed its frontier.
PARIS — French President François Hollande called a series of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris Friday night “an act of war,” saying the Syria-based militant group ISIL was behind them.
Scores of people were killed in the French capital after gunmen opened fire in multiple locations with Kalashnikov assault rifles and set off explosions, in the worst terrorist attack in France’s history. The official death toll stands at 129, with nearly 100 more people seriously injured.
“This is an act of war,” Hollande said on his way out of a specially convened session of France’s Defense Council. “An act committed by a terrorist army, Daesh, against France, our values, who we are, a free country that speaks to the entire planet.”
Daesh is a loose Arabic acronym referring to ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The Socialist leader also decreed three days of national mourning and called on the French to keep their calm and show unity in the face of an unprecedented threat. Late Friday, in a live TV address shortly after the attacks, he announced a national state of emergency and strengthened passport controls at French borders.
Police and the prosecutor said that eight attackers, who had worked in three coordinated teams, had been killed, including seven after detonating suicide devices. It is the first time that suicide terrorist attacks had taken place on French soil.
A rental car with Belgian plates that was used by the attackers was found parked near the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 people were killed.
On Saturday afternoon, in an operation related to the attacks, police in Brussels carried out raids in the neighborhood of Molenbeek, arresting an unspecified number of people.
Belgian authorities refused to comment on a report in Le Soir newspaper that three of the terrorists were from Molenbeek, which has a large Muslim population.
While all the names and nationalities of the attackers remained unknown as of Saturday afternoon, one couple at the Bataclan told Le Figaro daily they had seen four attackers all wearing heavy jackets who appeared to be in their twenties. A witness said the gunmen had a “Middle Eastern” appearance but spoke accentless French.
The woman, named only as Celia, 43, said the gunmen reloaded their weapons frequently and fired “without stopping.”
One of the suicide bombers who struck in Paris Friday night was of French nationality, police sources told Europe 1 radio. The man, who was identified thanks to his fingerprints but not publicly named, is said to have been born in a Paris suburb and was known to police as a radicalized individual.
At the bombing site near the Stade de France investigators found a Syrian passport belonging to a person born in 1990, while another passport belonging to an Egyptian was found nearby.
The attacker who had a Syrian passport had passed through Greece as a refugee on October 3, Nicolas Tosca, the Greek deputy minister of citizen protection, said in a statement.
Authorities hope that DNA from the attackers’ remains, currently being examined by medical experts, would lead to their identification.
Late Friday, Paris prosecutor François Molins said investigators were looking into possible accomplices due to the highly coordinated nature of the attack. Former intelligence officials cited by French television said that mounting a complex suicide operations required the expertise of an explosives technician who would not have participated, and would therefore still be on the loose.
Former anti-terrorist judge Marc Trevidic said that the next 24 hours were going to be crucial as investigators try to piece together a better picture of the attackers via computers, mobile phones and internet messages.
“They (the next hours) are decisive, especially because a team may yet strike again,” he told Le Figaro daily. “We need to move quickly and first identify the terrorists and their family, friends and coworkers.”
It was impossible as yet to determine whether the attackers had been combatants in Syria. But Trevidic said that their mastery of complex techniques necessary to carrying out a suicide bombing suggested experience in the region, either Iraq or Syria.
German radio Bayerisches Rundfunk reported Saturday that a man carrying guns, grenades and explosives had been stopped by police on the A8 highway between Salzbourg and Munich several days ago. Police found clues suggesting that the man, a 51-year-old from Montenegro, was heading toward Paris.
French police have said there was reason to believe the man had links to the operation in Paris.
‘It was a bloodbath’
People were killed or injured at about a half-dozen sites across the city, including near the Stade de France national stadium.
At the Bataclan concert hall, where more than 100 people were reported killed, witnesses reported gunmen bursting into an Eagles of Death Metal concert in the middle of a song and opening fire. Concert-goers played dead to avoid attracting the gunmens’ attention during a shooting that went on for long minutes in the darkness.
“It was a bloodbath,” Julien Pearce, a reporter for France’s Europe 1 radio station who was at the concert hall, told CNN.
The Al-Hayat Media Center, an official publication arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, earlier on Saturday morning claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, calling them a “miracle.”
“It’s a horror,” Hollande said in the address on French television, calling the attacks an act of “terrorism.”
“This is a terrible ordeal that, once again, assails us…. Who are these criminals? Who are these terrorists?” he said. “In the face of terror France must be strong. It must be great, and the authorities of state must be firm. We will be.”
The French police raised its terror alert level to “red alpha,” signalling multiple attacks. The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, last night encouraged residents of Paris to stay indoors.
Shortly before 3 a.m. Saturday, French police said they believed all of the attackers were dead. Micheal Cadot, the head of Paris police said that authorities were searching for possible accomplices.
The attacks, unprecedented in scale and audacity, brought to life a nightmarish scenario for French authorities which have been battling homegrown Islamist extremism for years: multiple, simultaneous assaults by heavily armed gunmen and bombers.
They marked the third time that France has been hit by terrorism in 2015, including the Charlie Hebdo assault in January and a beheading. An armed attacker who had spent time in Syria was thwarted on a Thalys fast train from Amsterdam to Paris in August.
Over the past few years hundreds of French citizens have joined Islamist groups in Syria, straining authorities’ ability to monitor all who return home — a group that security officials consider particularly dangerous given their wartime experience.
In per capita terms, the highest number of recruits of any EU country join Islamist extremist militants in Syria have come from Belgium. The government in Brussels has also struggled to keep track of returnees, and Interior Minister Jan Jambon last week identified the European capital as a hotbed of radicalism. A terrorist cell was broken up in January in southern Belgian, just across the open border from France, days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Witness reports of attackers shouting “It’s for Syria” brought to mind possible vengeance for French airstrikes being carried out against ISIL targets in Syria.
Three weeks before world leaders were due to convene in Paris for the COP21 climate change conference, the attack called into question any international meeting in a country that has sealed itself off to thwart attacks and catch any terrorist attempting to leave the country.
According to Le Monde, the secretary general of the Cop21 climate conference said that a crisis meeting had been called to determine what should be done about the gathering, which was due to begin on Nov. 30.
As an immediate consequence of the attacks, Hollande called off his trip Sunday to Turkey for a G20 summit; Paris’ Orly airport was closed as well as schools and universities; and candidates in France’s December regional election said they would suspend their campaigns.
Despite a high terror alert level and troops deployed in sensitive sites across France, the bar terraces, soccer stadium and concert hall where attackers struck would have been lightly protected.
The coordinated strikes began at 9:17 at the Stade de France, with up to three explosions, and was followed minutes later by the shootings across a popular neighborhood of northern Paris that was crowded on a Friday night.
Jonas Tylewski, a German studying in France who was in the stadium, said many in the crowd thought the explosions were fireworks, but soon police cars arrived at the scene. Mobile internet connection in the stadium was very slow and stopped working completely shortly after the match, Tylewski said.
The crowd began to leave the stadium but then people ran back in panic after hearing that there were shootings outside, Tylewski said.
“Friends of mine are still in the conflict area,” Tylewski said, citing the 10th and 11th Arrondissements. “The atmosphere is way worse than after Charlie Hebdo,”
Hollande, who had been at the Stade de France for a match between France and Germany, was escorted out of the area and police set up a security cordon.
Carnage at Bataclan
At the Bataclan concert hall in northern Paris, witness called the scene “a carnage.”
A witness cited by BFMTV said that the gunmen inside the Bataclan had shouted “It’s for Syria, It’s for Syria” while firing their weapons. One attacker shouted “Allahu akbar,” God is great in Arabic, and fired into the crowd, a witness told Agence France-Presse.
Pearce, the radio reporter, gave a harrowing account of the “10 horrific minutes” when black-clothed gunmen wielding AK-47s entered and fired calmly and randomly at hundreds of screaming concertgoers.
“People yelled, screamed and everybody lying on the floor, and it lasted for 10 minutes, 10 minutes, 10 horrific minutes where everybody was on the floor covering their head(s),” Pearce said
“We heard so many gunshots and the terrorists were very calm, very determined and they reloaded three or four times their weapons and they didn’t shout anything. They didn’t say anything.”
Another witness, Pierre Janaszak, a radio presenter, was sitting in the balconies with his sister and friends, when they heard shots from below about one hour into the show.
“I clearly heard them say ‘It’s the fault of Hollande, it’s the fault of your president, he should not have intervened in Syria’. They also spoke about Iraq,” Janaszak said.
A man who gave his name only as Jerome said he was near the stage watching the concert by the Eagles of Death Metal, an American band, when he heard shots, turned around and saw gunmen “by the bar.”
“They gesticulated for everyone to get down and fired above our heads,” he said. “I climbed over the barrier and onto the stage … I fell on a guitar and cut my face.”
‘Attack on all of humanity’
Hollande on Saturday said he would convene a special joint session of parliament at Versailles for a solemn address on Monday.
President Barack Obama condemned the attacks in Paris as an “outrageous attempt to terrorize innocent civilians” and promised the people of France the full support of the United States.
“This is not just an attack on Paris … but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we all share,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “We stand together with them in the fight against terrorism and extremism.”
Obama promised that the U.S. will provide the government of France whatever assistance is needed and to do whatever it takes to bring terrorists to justice.
Speaking at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany’s Angela Merkel said: “We, your friends in Germany, feel so close to you. We cry with you, and we will fight the battle with you against those who have done something so outrageous to you.”
“This attack on freedom is not only aimed at Paris,” the German chancellor added. “It’s aimed at all of us. And it hits all of us. This is why we all, together, will give an answer.”