Paris airport suspect previously investigated for Islamic extremism
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Paris airport suspect previously investigated for Islamic extremism

Man shot dead trying to grab soldier's weapon was 'known to the police and intelligence services,' minister says

RAID police unit officers secure the area at the Paris' Orly airport on March 18, 2017 following the shooting of a man by French security forces. (AFP/Benjamin Cremel)
RAID police unit officers secure the area at the Paris' Orly airport on March 18, 2017 following the shooting of a man by French security forces. (AFP/Benjamin Cremel)

The 39-year-old attacker who was shot and killed at Paris Orly Airport Saturday after attempting to seize a soldier’s weapon had already crossed authorities’ radar for suspected Islamic extremism, the Paris prosecutor’s office said.

Prosecutors said the suspect’s house was among scores searched in November 2015 in the immediate aftermath of suicide bomb-and-gun terror attacks that killed 130 people in Paris. Those searches targeted people with suspected radical leanings.

French Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux confirmed he was “known to the police and the intelligence services.”

French President Francois Hollande on Saturday said investigators were working to determine whether the suspect “had a terrorist plot behind him.”

French media reports identified the suspect as Ziyed Ben Belgacem, a 39-year-old born in France.

Hollande ruled out any link between Saturday’s attack and the upcoming French presidential election, and said the thwarted shooting showed that France’s policy of having military patrols guarding public sites “is essential,” and that the nation “must remain extremely vigilant.”

French Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux speaks to the press on March 18, 2017 at Paris' Orly airport following the shooting of a man by French security forces after tried to grab a soldier's weapon. (AFP PHOTO / Benjamin CREMEL)
French Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux speaks to the press on March 18, 2017 at Paris’ Orly airport following the shooting of a man by French security forces after tried to grab a soldier’s weapon. (AFP/Benjamin Cremel)

The prosecutor’s office said its anti-terrorism division was handling the investigation and had taken the attacker’s father and brother into custody for questioning.

The incident further rattled France, which remains under a state of emergency after attacks over the past two years that have killed 235 people.

The suspect was pulled over by police at around 6:55 a.m. (0555 GMT) Saturday while driving in Garges-les-Gonesse. He drew a gun and fired shots at the officers, slightly injuring one in the head, before fleeing.

He then continued south to steal another car in the suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine about 10 kilometers (six miles) from Paris Orly Airport. In Vitry, he also “burst into a bar and threatened those present,” Le Roux said.

Minutes later, at around 8:30 a.m. (0730 GMT), he walked onto the departures floor of Orly-Sud terminal, where he tried to grab the rifle of a female officer on patrol with two others.

French Red Cross workers stand by as travelers are evacuated from Paris' Orly airport on March 18, 2017 following the shooting of a man by French security forces. (Benjamin CREMEL)
French Red Cross workers stand by as travelers are evacuated from Paris’ Orly airport on March 18, 2017 following the shooting of a man by French security forces. (AP/Benjamin Cremel)

A senior military source said he knocked the soldier to the ground and grabbed her rifle. The two other soldiers then opened fire, killing him, the source said. Le Roux was adamant that he “did not succeed” in taking the rifle.

No one else was injured in the melee.

Identity documents found on the attacker matched those presented by the man who fired at police in Garges-les-Gonesse.

All flights in and out of Orly airport were suspended Saturday morning. Many inbound flights were diverted to the bigger Charles de Gaulle airport to the north of Paris.

Around 3,000 passengers were evacuated from Orly-Sud terminal, where the attack took place, while elite police teams secured it and swept it for possible explosives. Those at the nearby Orly-Ouest terminal were confined to the building.

By early afternoon Orly-Ouest had reopened and flights were starting to resume.

The soldier who was attacked is part of the Sentinelle special force installed around France to protect sensitive sites after a string of deadly Islamic extremist attacks. The force includes 7,500 soldiers, half deployed in the Paris region and half in the provinces.

Police officers cordon off the access to the Orly airport, south of Paris, Saturday, March, 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Police officers cordon off the access to the Orly airport, south of Paris, Saturday, March, 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Saturday was at least the fourth time that Sentinelle soldiers have been targeted since the force was created. It was set up after the attack January 2015 attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and reinforced after the assaults that left 130 people dead in Paris in November of that year.

Orly is Paris’ second-biggest airport, behind Charles de Gaulle. It has both domestic and international flights, notably to destinations in Europe and Africa.

The shooting comes after a similar incident last month at the Louvre Museum in which an Egyptian man attacked soldiers guarding the site and was shot and wounded. It also comes just days before the first anniversary of attacks on the Brussels airport and subway that killed 32 people and wounded hundreds of others.

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