Beheading, explosion at French factory called terrorist attack

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One man was decapitated and at least two other people were injured Friday morning in a terrorist attack on a factory in southeastern France, barely less than six months after the Charlie Hebdo massacre by Muslim radicals in Paris, French President Francois Hollande said.

One suspect has been arrested in connection with the attack, said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, adding that intelligence services had identified the man as a potential extremist in 2006 but stopped monitoring him two years later.

Cazeneuve named the suspect as Yessim Salim or Yacine Sali, according to conflicting spellings given in various news reports.

In response, Hollande called a crisis meeting of France's Defense Council on Friday afternoon. Gerard Larcher, president of the Senate, the French upper house of parliament, described the attack as "intolerable" and said there was a sense of "deep shock" across France.

Speaking in Brussels on Friday morning before a planned European Union summit, Hollande said the attack was carried out shortly before 10 a.m. by one or possibly two men in a car who clearly intended to blow up the Air Products factory in the small town of Saint Quentin Fallavier, near the city of Lyon. The plant manufactures industrial gases.

Hollande said there was no doubt that it was a terrorist assault. French anti-terrorist prosecutors have opened an investigation.

French media reported that the severed head of the decapitated victim was found hanging on the factory fence, near a flag bearing Arabic inscriptions. Hollande said that a message of some sort had been written on the body.

The victim was a 50-year-old man who may have been the arrested man's employer at a transport company that had dealings with the factory, French officials and media reports said.

The other victims were hurt in an explosion set off when the attackers rammed their car into the factory gates, according to news reports. The severity of the injuries was not immediately clear.

A woman identified as the suspect's wife told Europe 1 radio that she had been married to her husband since 2005 and that they and their three children were "normal Muslims" who led "a normal family life."

"I don't know what's going on. It's not possible," she said, describing her husband as "very, very calm."

She said he worked as a delivery driver and usually left each morning at 7 a.m. and returned between noon and 2 p.m. But on Friday he did not return.

Gendarmes quickly sealed off roads around the Air Products factory and referred inquiries to the public prosecutor’s office more than 50 miles away in the city of Grenoble.

A 23-year-old man who gave his name as Mehdi and who lives close to the factory expressed his contempt for the attackers.

“I am a young Muslim who is keeping Ramadan right now. To carry out this attack on a Friday during the holy month is not respectful of Islam,” said Mehdi, who was dressed in a long white djellaba. “These people may call themselves Muslims, but they are not.

"I say to them, you do not have the right to cut off someone's head; you do not have the right to explode anything near our homes not far from where we live with our children, our nieces and nephews.”

The gruesome violence came less than six months after the Jan. 7 rampage in Paris at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine targeted because of its cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and a Jewish supermarket. Twenty people were killed, including the three attackers.

France has been on alert for further attacks. In April, an Algerian national linked by authorities to Al Qaeda and Islamic State was arrested on suspicion of plotting a gun attack on churches in Paris.

Security was stepped up at other sites in the region where Friday’s attack occurred, for fear that the incident might either be a prelude to a larger assault or inspiration for copycats.

"The terrorist threat is at a maximum," Alain Juppe, a former French premier, said via Twitter. "The [French] state must do everything possible to protect its citizens."

Air Products is a U.S.-owned company founded in 1940 and headquartered in Allentown, Pa. It has offices around the world, including more than a dozen in Europe.

Staff writer Chu and special correspondent Boyle reported from London. Special correspondent Willsher reported from Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, France.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:52 a.m.: This article was updated with new details and background.

5 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Hollande and other details from the scene.

3:08 a.m.: This article was updated with new details and background.

This article was first posted at 2:55 a.m.

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