A Pakistan-born teenager has admitted to stabbing two people with a meat cleaver outside the former Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine, with nine people now detained over the attack.
The man, who said he was born in Pakistan and is 18, "takes responsibility for his action," which came three weeks into the trial of suspected accomplices in the 2015 massacre of the newspaper's staff, a source close to the investigation said.
The man said during questioning he places his actions "in the context of the republication of cartoons" of the Prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo, the source said.
The 18-year-old said he wanted to avenge the republication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed by the satirical weekly, which in January 2015 was targeted in a massacre carried out by gunmen.
Prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard said that the chief suspect in Friday’s stabbings was arrested, along with another person. Ricard said the assailant did not know the people stabbed, a woman and a man working at a documentary production company who had stepped outside for a smoke break.
An investigation was opened into “attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise,” according to the terrorism prosecutor’s office.
The attack on Friday came three weeks into a trial in Paris of suspected accomplices in the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo, a policewoman and a Jewish supermarket that left 17 people dead.
While the man is believed to have carried out the stabbings alone, eight other people are now also under arrest following two more detentions on Saturday.
The two new individuals arrested were the suspect's younger brother and another acquaintance, a judicial source said.
A suspected accomplice of the attacker was released in the early hours of Saturday while another person close to the suspected attacker and who could had been his former roommate in a hotel north of Paris has been arrested.
By midday Saturday, seven people remained in custody including the suspected attacker.
Police quickly detained the man suspected of carrying out the attack next to the steps of an opera house about 500 metres away.
A second suspect was detained moments after the attack and prosecutors were trying to establish his relation to the attacker. He was released free of charge, the source said.
Arrested one month ago
The suspected assailant in Friday’s stabbing had been arrested a month ago for carrying a screwdriver but was not on police radar for religious radicalisation, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
He said the screwdriver was considered a weapon, but did not explain why.
The interior minister conceded that security was lacking on the street where Charlie Hebdo was once headquartered, and ordered special protection for all “symbolic sites,” noting in particular Jewish sites around the Yom Kippur holiday this weekend. A Jewish grocery store was targeted days after the Charlie Hebdo newsroom massacre, in what authorities say were coordinated attacks.
Charlie Hebdo vacated its offices after the 2015 attack and is now in a secret location. The building is now used by a television production company.
After the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, investigators said the militants had wanted to avenge the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad in the magazine. Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons on the eve of the trial.
Al Qaeda, the militant group that claimed responsibility for the 2015 attack, threatened to attack Charlie Hebdo again after it republished the cartoons.
France has experienced a wave of attacks by militants in the past few years. Bombings and shootings in November 2015 at the Bataclan theatre and sites around Paris killed 130 people, and in July 2016 a militant drove a truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 86.
Suspect arrived three years ago
The interior minister said the assailant arrived in France three years ago as an unaccompanied minor, apparently from Pakistan, but his identity was still being verified.
“Manifestly it’s an act of Islamist terrorism,” Interior Minister Darmanin said in an interview with public broadcaster France-2.
“Obviously, there is little doubt. It’s a new bloody attack against our country, against journalists, against this society.”
France’s counterterrorism prosecutor said earlier that authorities suspect a terrorist motive because of the place and timing of the stabbings: in front of the building where Charlie Hebdo was based until the attack on its cartoonists, and at a time when suspects in the 2015 attack are on trial across town.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said the lives of the two wounded workers lives were not in danger. He offered the government’s solidarity with their families and colleagues.
The prime minister noted the “symbolic site” of the attack, “at the very moment where the trial into the atrocious acts against Charlie Hebdo is under way.” He promised the government’s “unfailing attachment to freedom of the press, and its determination to fight terrorism.”
People in the neighbourhood were stunned, saying on French TV that they were reliving the nightmare of the newsroom massacre.
In a tweet, Charlie Hebdo strongly condemned the stabbings.
“This tragic episode shows us once again that fanaticism, intolerance, the origins of which will be revealed by the investigation, are still present in French society...There is no question of ceding anything,” the newspaper said.
The two people confirmed injured worked for documentary film company Premieres Lignes, according to founder Paul Moreira. He told France’s BFM television that the attacker fled into the subway, and the company’s staff members were evacuated.
Moreira said a man in the street “attacked two people who were in front of the building, didn’t enter the building, and who attacked them with an axe and who left.” He said the company had not received any threats.
His colleague, Luc Hermann, describing witnesses’ version of the attack, said the assailant first struck the woman on her face, then the man, before returning to attack the woman again.
“The whole team...took refuge on the roof of the building like our team did five years ago during the attack of Charlie Hebdo,” he said on France-2.
He said it was “incomprehensible” that authorities had not taken special security precautions particularly at this time.
A wrenching, two-month trial in the Charlie Hebdo attacks is currently unfolding at the main Paris courthouse. Murmurs broke out at the trial of 14 people, including 3 fugitives, accused of helping the attackers in the January 2015 killings, as the news filtered through.
The widows of the two brothers who forced their way into the newspaper’s offices and opened fire at a morning editorial meeting testified on Friday.
Caty Richard, a lawyer for the Charlie Hebdo journalists, heard about the knife attack in the midst of the trial.
“My first thought was this will never end,” she said. “I am devastated, angry.”
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