US probes Yemen connection to Paris killings

Police officers patrol under a bridge at Porte de la Villette in Paris, France.
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Police officers patrol under a bridge at Porte de la Villette in Paris, France.

French police were still hunting on Thursday night for two brothers suspected of being behind the lethal attack on a satirical magazine after a possible sighting in a forested area northeast of Paris earlier in the day.

The two suspects were identified by police on Wednesday evening as Said and Cherif Kouachi, aged 34 and 32, French nationals of Algerian descent.

Said Kouachi traveled to Yemen in 2011 and may have received training from an al-Qaeda group, a US official said on Thursday. Mr Kouachi spent several weeks in Yemen where he may have been trained at a camp run by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terror group's Yemen-based affiliate.

While the disclosure provides the first evidence of a possible Yemeni link to the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, when 10 journalists and two police officers were shot dead, officials said that they were still many unanswered questions about Mr Kouachi's connections with AQAP.

It was not clear whether AQAP played any role in organising the attack in Paris. Intelligence agencies were also still trying to piece together what sort of training he might have received in Yemen and whether he had any contact with the group's leaders, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born cleric who was killed by a drone strike in 2011 in Yemen.

Over the past few years, US officials have consistently described AQAP as one of the most dangerous of al-Qaeda's affiliates, which has been able to maintain a strong presence in Yemen despite a persistent campaign of drone strikes aimed at its senior members.

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A 2013 issue of the magazine Inspire, which is published by AQAP, called for attacks on westerners it claimed had insulted Islam, including the magazine's editor Stéphane Charbonnier, also known as Charb, who was killed on Wednesday.

Antiterrorism police conducted searches in towns and villages in the Picardy region on Thursday, about 50km from the capital, after two men resembling the brothers robbed, according to French media, a petrol station.

During the day the manhunt focused on the town of Crépy-en-Valois, where Agence France Presse reported that the suspects had abandoned their car, and Longmont, a village further east. The authorities deployed 88,000 police and troops around the country to beef up security.

As police operations continued, France held a day of mourning for the 12 people killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack, including a minute's silence at midday.

Tensions increased early on Thursday morning after a woman police officer died in a separate shooting in Montrouge, in the southwest of Paris. The gunman fled the scene but authorities said later they had two people in custody. Bernard Cazeneuve, interior minister, said there was no evidence at this stage to link the two attacks.

The police have arrested nine people in connection with the gun attack on the magazine's offices that stunned France and brought an outpouring of sympathy from around the world.

Manuel Valls, the prime minister, said preventing another attack "is our main concern" and appealed for witnesses to come forward.

A third man, 18-year-old Hamyd Mourad, was being questioned in Charleville-Mézières, about 145 miles northeast of Paris, after turning himself in to police.

President François Hollande met Nicolas Sarkozy, his predecessor and opposition leader, on Thursday in the first of several meetings with politicians from across the political spectrum to build unity in response to the attack.

Mr Sarkozy said afterwards: "It was a declaration of war on civilization. Faced with barbarity, civilization must defend itself."

Staff at Charlie Hebdo said the magazine would be published next Wednesday. The newspaper Les Echos reported that €500,000 had been pledged to a fund to keep the publication going with a print run of 1 million — more than 50 times higher than its usual circulation.

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The apparently well-planned attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, under police protection for years because of its repeated mocking of Islam and other religions, is one of the deadliest terrorist assaults on European soil in recent years.

It followed months of warnings by the French government of the risk of terrorism from Islamist militants.

European security chiefs are still scrambling to piece together an accurate picture of what exactly occurred on Wednesday and who those responsible are.

In a rare speech due to be given on Thursday evening, Andrew Parker, the director-general of Britain's domestic security service, MI5, will say that it is still "too early for us to come to judgment about the precise details or origin of the attack". He will add that the attack "is a terrible reminder of the intentions of those who wish to harm us".

If confirmed as the work of Islamist militants, it would rank as the worst such terrorist attack in Europe since suicide bombers struck in London in July 2005, killing 52 people.

British government officials said on Thursday that London had tightened border security, including at Calais and the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, where the UK Border Agency has controls. However the government's Cobra emergency committee decided not to raise the terror threat level from "severe", which indicates an attack is highly likely.

According to French media, this is at least the third time Cherif Kouachi has been wanted by the police. In 2005, he was arrested as part of the Filiere des Buttes Chaumont group, named after the leafy park in Paris's 19th arrondissement near where they met to recruit jihadis to fight in Iraq.

A former pizza delivery man, Cherif was detained as he and others in the group prepared to fly to Damascus, Syria. In 2008 he was sentenced to three years in prison, including 18 months he had already served. Cherif said during the trial that he was inspired by the abuse of inmates by US troops at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison.

The Paris attack comes against the backdrop of rising political tensions in France and elsewhere in Europe over immigration and the perceived growing influence of radical Islam. Support is growing for the far-right National Front in France, led by Marine Le Pen, which campaigns on these issues. The attack also followed big demonstrations in Germany by Pegida, a new rightwing "anti-Islamization" movement.