Masked gunmen burst into the Paris offices of a French satirical newspaper on Wednesday and killed 12 people, including top journalists and two police officers, before fleeing in a car. The gunmen were still at large at dusk, as an extensive police dragnet spread across a traumatized city, The New York Times reports.
Among the dead were four prominent cartoonists who have repeatedly lampooned Islamic terrorists and the Prophet Muhammad, leading to speculation that the attack on the newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, was the work of Islamic militants acting alone or in concert with extremist groups.
A police guard assigned to protect the newspaper was among the first victims. A second police officer, who responded to reports of the shooting, was killed on the sidewalk outside the office by the fleeing suspects, the Paris police said. The shooting of the second police officer was captured in a widely-seen video.
President François Hollande immediately declared that the attack was an act of terrorism and an assault on freedom of the press. He ratcheted up France’s nationwide terror alert to its highest level, and met with his cabinet in an emergency session. He said France was already on high alert after several planned terrorist attacks were thwarted in recent weeks.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but several websites and Twitter accounts associated with extremist groups applauded the violence, calling it revenge for the newspaper’s satirical treatment of Islam and its prophet.
Additional security was put in place at houses of worship, news media offices and transportation centers in Paris, and many schools were locked down as the search for the gunmen continued.
The radio station France Info quoted a witness as saying that he saw the attack from a nearby building in the heart of the French capital, not far from the Place des Vosges.
“About half an hour ago, two black-hooded men entered the building with Kalashnikovs,” the witness, Benoît Bringer, told the station. “A few minutes later, we heard lots of shots.” He added that the men were then seen fleeing the building.
Xavier Castaing, a police spokesman, said that three armed, masked men forced their way into the offices, firing indiscriminately at people in the lobby and wounding many. He said that they were carrying AK-47 rifles, and that the attack lasted several minutes before the assailants fled by car.
News reports said the gunmen shot at the police outside the building as they escaped. Several journalists sought safety on the roof of the building during the attack.
In 2011, the Charlie Hebdo office was badly damaged by a firebomb after it published a spoof issue “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammad to salute the victory of an Islamist party in Tunisian elections. It had announced plans to publish a special issue renamed “Charia Hebdo,” a play on the word in French for Shariah law.
A lawyer for the newspaper said that a number of prominent editors and cartoonists had been killed on Wednesday, including Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, and Jean Cabut, who signs his work Cabu. He said that the cartoonists Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac were also among the victims.
The police said that they had discovered an abandoned car in the 19th Arrondissement, a relatively poor, heavily populated area of Paris. They said they believed it was used by the gunmen.
One journalist at the Charlie Hebdo office, who asked that her name not be used, texted a friend after the shooting: “I’m alive. There is death all around me. Yes, I am there. The jihadists spared me.”
A senior United States counterterrorism official said on Wednesday that the American authorities were following the developments in Paris closely, but that they had not yet identified any individuals or groups who might be responsible for the attack.
The American official noted that, according to social media reports, the attackers did refer to the Prophet Muhammad, saying he was “avenged.”