One of France’s main airports was evacuated and flights disrupted for hours Saturday after a man wrestled a soldier to the ground and snatched her automatic rifle, telling her colleagues “there will be deaths.”
The 39-year-old assailant, identified by authorities as Ziyed Ben Belgacem, was known to France’s intelligence services as a possible Islamist extremist.
Hours before the airport attack, he wounded a police officer with a 9-millimeter lead-shot pistol during a traffic stop and later opened fire in a bar without hitting anyone, Francois Molins, the Paris prosecutor, said at an evening news conference.
Belgacem arrived at Orly Airport, south of Paris, at 8:06 a.m. and walked to Hall A on the first floor of the southern terminal, Molins said.
At 8.22 a.m., Molins said, Belgacem grabbed a female soldier who was patrolling the terminal from behind and put his gun to her head. He dragged her backward and ordered her two male colleagues to drop their weapons and raise their hands, telling them, “I am here to die for Allah.… In any case, there will be deaths.”
As the woman, a reservist, fought back, Belgacem dragged her to the ground and tried to wrestle her assault rifle from her. The weapon passed back and forth between them. As he finally wrested the gun from the soldier, she dropped down, allowing her colleagues to shoot him dead.
Police evacuated the airport to search for explosives, and air traffic was paralyzed for several hours.
A total of 178 departures and arrivals were canceled out of 476 scheduled flights, and 34 flights were rerouted to other airports, according to airport authorities. The incident disrupted the travel plans of 5,000 to 6,000 passengers.
Authorities said air traffic would not return to normal before Sunday morning.
Molins told reporters that a container filled with petrol was found in the dead man’s backpack, along with a Koran, some cigarettes and a lighter.
Belgacem’s father, brother and a cousin were taken in for questioning, Molins said.
Belgacem had nine criminal convictions for drug dealing, armed robbery, theft and handling stolen goods. He had been in prison a total of four times, including several months last year, and was subject to a “control judiciare,” meaning he was barred from leaving the country.
He was flagged to the intelligence services as a possible Islamist extremist after he was “radicalized in prison” from 2011 to 2012, Molins said.
Before the airport attack, the prosecutor said, Belgacem was stopped for speeding in a northern suburb of Paris. Ordered to produce his identity papers, he pulled out his lead-shot pistol and fired at the officers, wounding one in the face.
He then fled in his car and called an unidentified member of his family to say, “I’ve done something stupid,” the prosecutor said.
Belgacem later showed up at the bar and hijacked another car at gunpoint before showing up at the airport, Molins said.
France remains under a state of emergency after a series of deadly attacks over the last two years.
French President Francois Hollande said investigators will determine whether Saturday’s attacker "had a terrorist plot behind him." He hailed the “professionalism and courage” of the soldiers at the airport.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was the fourth time that soldiers from Operation Sentinelle, the security operation set up after three assailants killed 17 people over three days in Greater Paris in January 2015, had come under direct attack.
Willsher is a special correspondent.
5:30 p.m.: Updated with staff reporting.
1:20 p.m.: Updated with comments from Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.
9:05 a.m.: Updated with comments from the French defense minister and accounts from witnesses.
6:37 a.m.: Updated with details about suspect.
4:50 a.m.: Updated with the attacker’s father and brother in custody.
4 a.m.: Updates with officials linking the airport attack and the earlier carjacking.
3:30 a.m.: Updated with details on a shooting earlier Saturday.
2:55 a.m.: Updated with quotes from witnesses.
2:35 a.m.: Updated with the entire airport being evacuated and flights being diverted.
2:15 a.m.: Updated with details on the scene.
This article was first published at 1:45 a.m.