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Manhunt continues in France, as political row emerges

Two suspected attackers remain on the run and the Front National have come out in anger at not being invited to a rally for the victims
French soldiers patrol in front of the Eiffel Tower on January 8, 2015 in Paris (AFP)

A widespread manhunt was continuing in France on Thursday evening, as the search widened for two men suspected of carrying out Wednesday’s deadly attack on the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

A state of alert has been extended from the capital to include northern regions, where the brothers Cherif (32) and Said (34) Kouachi – who are French citizens of Algerian descent – are believed to be hiding.

A US official told AFP news agency that according to French intelligence, Said travelled to Yemen in 2011, where he received training from Al-Qaeda's affiliate there in small arms combat and marksmanship.

Another US official also said that the two men had been on a US terror watch list "for years", and on a no-fly list, barring them from flying into the US.

The Kouachi brothers reportedly robbed a petrol station near the town of VIllers-Cotterets on Thursday and some 88,000 police and security forces have been mobilised to find the men, who have been linked to militant groups fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The village of Longport was sealed off while police conducted house-to-house searches for the suspects, who are believed to be armed with heavy weaponry including machine guns and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

France 24 has reported that police are now searching a nearby wood, although little confirmed information is available about the hunt.

A third suspect handed himself into police on Wednesday night and is being held under armed guard. Hamyd Mourad, 18, was thought to have been the getaway driver in the attack, which left 10 journalists and two police officers dead, but he is no longer believed to have been involved.

While reports emerged about a feared copycat attack, French authorities have now said there is no evidence to link the Charlie Hebdo attack with the killing of a female officer on Thursday morning. The officer was shot dead by unknown assailants in Montrouge, a suburb south of Paris.

France, however, remained on alert with authorities reviewing the security of high-level political figures and dignitaries, and bodyguards having been doubled for their protection amid fears of potential further attacks.

Controversial writer Michel Houellebecq – who on Wednesday published a book, Submission, which imagines France several years in the future ruled by “the Muslims” – has gone into hiding according to France Info radio.

The author was said to be “profoundly affected by the death of his friend Bernard Maris,” the Charlie Hebdo writer.

In 2002, Houellebecq described Islam as “the stupidest religion”, for which he was taken to court and acquitted of inciting racism.

Attacks on Mosques

There have been a series of attacks, however, on mosques and Muslims across France that are believed to have been carried out as a form of retaliation for the killings at Charlie Hebdo’s offices.

Two men attacked a 21-year-old pregnant Muslim woman in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil, kicking her in the stomach and causing her to suffer a miscarriage, her lawyer Hosni Maati told AFP. The attackers reportedly shouted anti-Islamic taunts at the woman, who was four months pregnant.

Three blank grenades were thrown at a mosque shortly after midnight on Wednesday in the city of Le Mans, west of Paris. A bullet hole was also found in a window of the mosque.

In the Port-la-Nouvelle district near Narbonne in southern Franc, several shots were fired in the direction of a Muslim prayer hall shortly after evening prayers. The hall was empty, the local prosecutor said.

An explosion at a kebab shop near a mosque in the eastern French town of Villefranche-sur-Saone on Thursday morning also left no casualties. Local prosecutors have described it as a “criminal act”.

Divisions in French politics

On a political level, the Charlie Hebdo attack has exposed deeply held divisions in France between prominent parties on the left and right.

The French far-right party Front National has not been asked to take part in the “Republican Rally” planned for Sunday to commemorate those killed in the attack.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the RTL radio station that the “anti-Europe and anti-immigration” National Front did not share “the republican values of the ruling socialists and conservation opposition.”

“National unity is built around profoundly republican values, namely a refusal to make associations between Islam and extremism,” he said.

Front National leader Marine Le Pen – who finished third in the 2012 French presidential election – responded angrily to the decision to “exclude” her party from the rally.

“They say that the Front National are not welcome to a meeting where every other party is invited,” she said, according to Le Point. “There is no longer national unity, it’s disappeared because of their actions.”

Francois Lamy from the Socialist Party explained the decision not to invite Le Pen’s party by telling Le Monde: “We are not inviting organisations that divide the country, stigmatise our fellow Muslims and play on their fears.”

Le Pen told the France 2 channel on Thursday she advocates bringing back the death penalty for those who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack and on Wednesday she described Islam as a “murderous ideology”.

Public debate in France about the attack has been fierce and controversy spiralled on Wednesday during an RTL radio show when Le Figaro journalist Ivan Rioufol singled out a Muslim co-guest to specifically distance herself from the attack.

French writer Rokhaya Diallo had said she felt Muslims were being held collectively responsible for the attack and Rioufol responded by saying, “Because you are not disconnected, are you?”

Other guests on the radio show denounced Rioufol as having “poured oil on the fire” with his remarks and Diallo was left in tears as a result.

On Thursday, Rioufol went on to write in Le Figaro that France was at war, and even at risk of civil war, with the enemy being “radical Islam, political Islam, jihadist Islamism”.

A similar incident took place on CNN in the US on Wednesday, when presenter Don Lemon asked human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar if he supported the Islamic State group.

Social media response 

Social media, and in particular Twitter, continued to see a high level of activity in response to the attack. There have been more than 4.5 million tweets on #CharlieHebdo and more than 3 million tweets on #JeSuisCharlie, a hastag set up in solidarity with the murdered journalists. 

Alternative hashtags that have become increasingly popular include #JeSuisAhmed, which references 42-year-old police officer and French-Muslim Ahmed Merabet who was gunned down by the attackers on Wednesday.

#JeSuisAhmed has seen 65,000 tweets on Thursday and has become a space for people to express their criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons that satirised Islam and its holy figures.

Charlie Hebdo sparked protests across the Muslim world in September 2012 with its depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, which came on the back of an unconnected anti-Islam film made in the US.

At the time Mohammed Moussaoui, leader of the French Muslim Council, denounced the cartoons as “acts of aggression” but urged his fellow Muslims not to take part in unauthorised protests.

On Thursday Charlie Hebdo announced it will continue to publish its magazine. Next week it will have a print run of one million copies, compared with its usual 60,000, according to the BBC.

Patrick Pelloux, a columnist for the magazine, said they had decided to continue publishing in order to demonstrate that “stupidity will not win”.

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