Two brothers suspected of having gunned down 12 people in an Islamist attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were spotted Thursday morning and are armed, sources close to the manhunt said.
The manager of a gas station near Villers-Cotteret in the northern Aisne region “recognized the two men suspected of having participated in the attack against Charlie Hebdo,” the source said.
Police had issued arrest warrants for Cherif Kouachi, 32, a known jihadist convicted in 2008 for involvement in a network sending fighters to Iraq, and his 34-year-old brother Said. Both were born in Paris.
The two men were likely to be “armed and dangerous,” authorities warned.
A stunned and outraged France was in mourning Thursday, as security forces desperately hunted for the two brothers.
The massacre, the country’s bloodiest attack in half a century, triggered poignant and spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity around the world.
Over 24 hours after the brazen daylight assault, the masked, black-clad gunmen — who shouted “Allahu akbar” (“God is greatest”) while killing some of France’s most outspoken journalists as well as two policemen — were still on the loose.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said seven people had been detained in the hunt for the brothers, and a judicial source who refused to be named added these were men and women close to the suspects.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls, meanwhile, told French radio the two suspects were known to intelligence services and were “no doubt” being followed before Wednesday’s attack.
The frantic manhunt stretched into the night with search-and-seizure operations in Strasbourg and towns near Paris, while in northeastern Reims, police commandos raided a building later scoured by white-clad forensic police.
Hamyd Mourad, an 18-year-old suspected of being an accomplice in the attack, handed himself in, with police sources saying he had seen his name “circulating on social media.”
Even before the attack, France, home to Europe’s biggest Muslim population, was on high alert like many countries that have seen citizens leave to fight alongside the radical Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
At around 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the killers stormed the central Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo during an editorial meeting and picked off some of France’s best-known cartoonists in cold, military-style executions.
Outside the building, chilling amateur video footage showed the attackers calmly approaching a wounded policeman as he lay on the pavement and then shooting him at close range.
Many witnesses said the scene was “like a movie” and some described “rivers of blood” flowing in the streets of the City of Light.
One witness said: “I saw them leaving and shooting. They were wearing masks. These guys were serious.
“At first I thought it was special forces chasing drug traffickers or something,” said the man, who declined to give his name.
The attack stunned local residents.
“It’s awful, it’s awful,” said Anne Pajon, a Scot who has lived in Paris for 20 years, as she waited at the busy Saint Lazare train station.
“It’s scary. What’s worrying is that we can’t do anything. That’s terrorism — it hits whatever we do. We cannot prevent it.”
Charlie Hebdo gained notoriety in February 2006 when it reprinted cartoons of the Prophet that had originally appeared in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten.
Its offices were fire-bombed in November 2011 when it published a cartoon of Mohammed under the title “Sharia Hebdo.”
Even being dragged to court under anti-racism laws did not stop the publication, which in September 2012 again drew the Prophet, this time naked.
The attackers on Wednesday shouted “we have avenged the prophet, we have killed Charlie Hebdo,” according to prosecutors.
The assault took place on the day the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo was published.
It featured a cartoon of an armed militant noting “Still no attacks in France. Wait! We have until the end of January to send greetings.” That was a reference to France’s tradition of wishing someone a Happy New Year before January 31.
Editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb and who had lived under police guard after receiving death threats, was among those killed, along with the police officer assigned to protect him.
Other victims included Jean Cabut, known across France as Cabu, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac, better known as Tignous.