Twelve people were killed when at least three gunmen stormed the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris Wednesday and opened fire on employees with Kalashnikov rifles and RPGs.
The death toll was confirmed by Paris prosecutor’s spokeswoman Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre. A source cited by AFP said there were two police officers among the dead.
The shooters fled the scene, and may have taken a hostage with them, initial French reports said. Luc Poignant, an official of the SBP police union, said the attackers escaped in two vehicles.
The French government raised the security alert in the country to the highest level in the wake of the attack and reinforced security at houses of worship, stores, media offices and public transportation.
The editor-in-chief of the paper, Stephane Charbonnier, was killed in the attack, the daily Le Figaro reported.
French President Francois Hollande confirmed that the shooting was a “terror attack without a doubt” and said that his country’s authorities had thwarted several attacks “in recent weeks.” Hollande rushed to the scene and top government officials planned an emergency meeting later Wednesday.
Video images on the website of public broadcaster France Televisions showed two gunmen in black at a crossroads who appeared to fire down one of the streets. A cry of “Allahu akbar!” — Arabic for “God is great”— could be heard among the gunshots.
The extremist Islamic State group has threatened to attack France, and minutes before the attack Charlie Hebdo had tweeted a satirical cartoon of that extremist group’s leader giving New Year’s wishes. The cartoon entitled “Still No Attacks in France” had a caricature of an extremist fighter saying “Just wait — we have until the end of January to present our New Year’s wishes.”
— Guido Fawkes (@GuidoFawkes) January 7, 2015
Charlie Hebdo has stirred controversy often over the years due to its biting depictions of Muslims and the prophet Muhammad.
Notably, in one of its September 2012 issues, the magazine’s cover depicted an elderly ultra-Orthodox Jew pushing a crippled Muslim man in a wheelchair with the caption “Intouchables 2,” an allusion to a French film.
In the inner pages of the magazine, caricatures featured Muhammad in a series of “daring positions,” according to a description in the French daily Le Figaro.
According to Reuters, the cartoons included “nude caricatures” of the prophet.
Charlie Hebdo’s offices have been attacked in the wake of past controversies stirred by its publications.
In 2011, Charlie Hebdo published an edition that featured the prophet Muhammad as a “guest editor.” The issue sparked widespread demonstrations, and the offices of the magazine were firebombed in what was widely assumed to be a revenge attack.
US President Barack Obama’s top spokesman said the United States was determined to help the French apprehend those responsible for the attack. Press secretary Josh Earnest said US officials were in close contact with the French government.
Earnest told CNN the French have been “stalwart allies” in the US fight against Islamic State extremists. The spokesman also said: “We know they are not going to be cowed by this terrible act.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the “sickening” attack. “The murders in Paris are sickening. We stand with the French people in the fight against terror and defending the freedom of the press,” he said in a message on Twitter.
Wednesday’s attack comes the same day of the release of a book by a celebrated French novelist depicting France’s election of its first Muslim president. Hollande had been due to meet with the country’s top religious officials later in the day.
AP and AFP contributed to this report.