PARIS: Islamic State jihadists yesterday claimed a series of coordinated attacks by gunmen and suicide bombers in Paris that killed at least 128 people in scenes of carnage at a concert hall, restaurants and the national stadium. French President Francois Hollande also blamed the Islamic extremist group for the bloodshed and called the coordinated assault on Friday night at six different sites an “act of war”.
Authorities identified the body of a French national known to the intelligence services near the Bataclan concert hall, where 82 people were killed by armed men who had shouted “Allahu akbar” (“God is greatest!”) before gunning down concert-goers. Police sources said he was probably one of those who stormed the building as around 1,500 people were watching a Californian rock band. The discovery of Syrian and Egyptian passports near the body of other of assailants appeared to justify fears over the threat posed to Europe by extremism in the Middle East.
The attacks, which saw the first-ever suicide bombings on French soil, were “prepared, organized and planned overseas, with help from inside (France) which the investigation will establish,” Hollande said. Analysts at Eurasia Group said the attacks “confirm a structural shift in the modus operandi of the Islamic State, and represent a prelude to additional attacks in the West.” A man arrested in Germany in early November after guns and explosives were found in his car may be linked to the attacks in Paris, Bavaria’s state premier said, without giving details.
The streets of the French capital were eerily quiet yesterday, as authorities declared a state of national emergency following the worst attacks in Europe since the 2004 Madrid train bombings. While many residents stayed inside out of fear, hundreds gathered spontaneously at blood donation centres while others flocked to place candles and flowers at the sites where people had died.
The attack on the Bataclan took place a short distance from the former offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine that was attacked by jihadists in January. Like those attacks, the massacre sparked an outpouring of emotion around the world, with London’s Tower Bridge, Berlin’s Brandenberg Gate and New York’s World Trade Center all illuminated in the red, white and blue of the French tricolore.
Shocked survivors told how eight militants, all wearing suicide vests, stalked the city, indiscriminately gunning down people at bars and restaurants on a busy Friday night. In the worst of the bloodshed, dozens of people were mown down at a sold-out show by American rock group Eagles of Death Metal. The gunmen then began executing hostages one by one, witnesses said. “They didn’t stop firing. There was blood everywhere, corpses everywhere. Everyone was trying to flee,” Pierre Janaszak, a radio presenter who was at the concert, told AFP.
The gunmen were heard raging at Hollande and his decision in September to begin air strikes on Islamic State jihadists in Syria. “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’,” Janaszak added. The band survived the attack but abruptly cut short their European tour and have returned to the United States, the concert promoters said.
As heavily-armed police stormed the Bataclan at around 12.30 am (2330 GMT), three of the gunmen blew themselves up, while a fourth was hit by police fire. A police officer who took part in the storming of the building told AFP: “It was horrible inside, a bloodbath, people shot in the head, people who were shot as they were lying on the ground.”
In a statement posted online yesterday, IS said “eight brothers wearing explosive belts and carrying assault rifles” conducted a “blessed attack on… Crusader France” saying the targets were “carefully chosen”. It also referred to French air strikes on IS in Syria, threatening further attacks “as long as it continues its Crusader campaign.”
A total of 128 people were killed and 300 wounded, of whom 80 were said to be in critical condition. The toll does not include the eight attackers. Among the victims were at least three foreigners, including two Belgians and a Portuguese man, officials said yesterday. France has been on high alert following the January attacks and narrowly averted more bloodshed in August when a gunman was overpowered on a packed high-speed train coming from Amsterdam. No arrests had been made by 5:00 pm (1600 GMT) yesterday. Police were trying to identify the attackers’ body parts and screening hours of CCTV footage.
Hollande immediately declared three days of national mourning, and France will hold a minute’s silence at midday tomorrow when flags will be lowered to half mast. “Faced with war, the country must take appropriate action,” Hollande said after an emergency meeting of security chiefs. He also announced three days of national mourning. “France will be merciless towards these barbarians from Daesh,” he said, using an Arab acronym for Islamic State. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement: “The war we must wage should be total.”
In a sign of the tension gripping the world’s most visited city, the Eiffel Tower was closed indefinitely and the main cinema chains shut on police advice. Disneyland Paris also said it would not open in a move of solidarity and several of Paris’ big department stores were also closed after initially opening for several hours. Hollande himself was hastily evacuated from the Stade de France when suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the stadium during a friendly football international between France and Germany. As the drama unfolded, the German team decided to spend the night at the stadium rather than risking the drive through the French capital to their hotel, the manager said. After being whisked from the stadium near the blasts, Hollande declared a national state of emergency, the first since World War Two. Border controls were temporarily re-imposed to stop perpetrators escaping.
US President Barack Obama described the carnage as “an attack on all of humanity” and an emotional Pope Francis said he was “shaken” by the “inhuman” attacks on the French capital. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the attacks showed IS jihadists had stepped up their capabilities. “Last night’s attacks suggest a new degree of planning and coordination and a greater ambition for mass casualty attacks,” he said.
The carnage took place after France tightened border security ahead of key UN climate talks just outside the French capital which begin on Nov 30 and will be attended by Obama and dozens of other world leaders. And Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was due to visit France today, postponed his trip.
As well as the stadium and the concert hall, several restaurants were also targeted, including a popular Cambodian eatery in the trendy Canal St Martin area, where at least 12 people died. Outside the restaurant, mourners yesterday left flowers, a candle and the French national flag emblazoned with the Latin slogan of Paris, which reads: “It is buffeted by the waves, yet remains afloat.” Another 18 people were killed at nearby Rue de Charonne where witnesses said a cafe and a Japanese restaurant were targeted.
Sylvestre, a young man who was at the Stade de France when bombs went off there, said he was saved by his cellphone, which he was holding to his ear when debris hit it. “This is the cell phone that took the hit, it’s what saved me,” he said. “Otherwise my head would have been blown to bits,” he said, showing the phone with its screen smashed. French newspapers spoke of “carnage” and “horror”. Le Figaro’s headline said: “War in the heart of Paris” on a black background with a picture of people on stretchers.
Julien Pearce, a journalist from Europe 1 radio, was inside the concert hall when the shooting began. In an eyewitness report posted on the station’s website, Pearce said several very young individuals, who were not wearing masks, entered the hall during the concert, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and started “blindly shooting at the crowd”. “There were bodies everywhere,” he said. The gunmen shot their victims in the back, finishing some off at point-blank range before reloading their guns and firing again, Pearce said, after escaping into the street by a stage door, carrying a wounded girl on his shoulder.
Toon, a 22-year-old messenger who lives near the Bataclan, was going into the concert hall with two friends at around 10.30 pm when he saw three young men dressed in black and armed with machine guns. He stayed outside. One of the gunmen began firing into the crowd. “People were falling like dominoes,” he told Reuters. He saw people shot in the leg, shoulder and back, with several lying on the floor, apparently dead. But amid the shock, some residents were defiant. Speaking to AFP at the Bataclan, concert-goer Charles insisted he would not be cowed by terror. “We won’t give in to fear,” he said. “I’m going to a concert on Tuesday. Keep rocking!” – Agencies