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World & Nation

French policeman hailed as hero for foiling deadly supermarket standoff

FRANCE-ATTACK
The scene outside a supermarket in Trebes, France, where a gunman was killed after taking hostages.
(Pascal Pavani / AFP/Getty Images)

A French police officer was hailed as a hero Friday after he persuaded an armed man who had stormed a supermarket and fatally shot at least two people there to let him take the place of one the gunman’s hostages.

Once inside, the officer was able to leave his cellphone switched on so that emergency responders gathered outside the market in southern France could monitor the activity inside.

Fearing that the gunman was about to start shooting his hostages, police stormed the market, shooting and killing him. The officer who had volunteered to be a hostage, identified as 44-year-old Arnaud Beltrame, was seriously injured in the gunfire.

In all, three victims were killed and at least 16 were injured in the mayhem, which again raised the specter of terrorism in a country that has been on high alert since a string of Islamic extremist attacks in 2015 and 2016 that killed more than 200 people.

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During the standoff, the gunman pledged allegiance to Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and yelled, “Allahu akbar” — “God is great” in Arabic — as he fired his weapon. ISIS later claimed responsibility for the attack.

Authorities described the gunman as a small-time criminal who was known to police. He had no known ties to terrorist groups, they said. But authorities are investigating ISIS’ claim.

Events began to unfold early Friday when anti-terrorist forces scrambled to the Super U supermarket in the sleepy town of Trebesafter a gunman hijacked a car in nearby Carcassonne and shot both occupants, killing one.

The man, identified as 26-year-old Redouane Lakdim, drove off in the stolen vehicle and after a few miles tried to ram a group of police officers playing soccer before pulling out a 9-millimeter pistol and opening fire, authorities said. Police said one officer was struck in the chest, the bullet shattering several ribs and puncturing his lung.

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French police and firefighters secure the entrance of Trebes, southern France, where an armed man to
French police and firefighters secure the entrance to the town of Trebes, in southern France, where an armed man took hostages in a supermarket.
(Jean-Paul Bonincontro / Associated Press )

Police said Lakdim then drove to the supermarket, where witnesses told police he ran inside and pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Witness said he yelled, “You are killing people in Syria. Now you’re going to die,” before shooting and killing a store employee and a customer.

The gunman, authorities said, demanded the release of Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the only surviving member of the terrorist commando group that carried out a series of shootings and bombings in Paris in November 2015 that left 130 people dead and hundreds more injured.

During the four-hour standoff between the gunman and officers with aspecial tactical unit ofthe National Gendarmerie known as GIGN, the gunman agreed to the officer’s offer to swap places with one of the hostages.

Interior Minister Gerard Collomb called it an exceptional “act of heroism” on the officer’s part and a break in the fast-moving incident. With the officer’s phone switched on, those outside were able to detect what was going on in the market.

Collomb, who visited the scene, said the gunman apparently acted alone. He described the man as a small-time criminal. Collomb said he was known to intelligence services, but there was no suggestion he had been radicalized or was about to carry out a terrorist act.

His comments conflicted with initial police reports that the suspect was on a list of those vulnerable to radicalization.

A woman who was “close” to Lakdim was taken into custody for questioning late Friday. French authorities often detain friends and associates of potential terrorism figures for questioning.

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Speaking in Brussels, where he was attending aEuropean Union summit, French President Emmanuel Macron offered his “full support” to everyone involved in the situation and said he would return to Paris in the coming hours. He also singled out the officer who gave himself up as a hostage.

“He saved lives and did honor to ... our country,” Macron said. “He is between life and death, and all our thoughts are with him and his family.”

The officer was shot several times, including once in the throat, police said.

Macron said French officials are investigating Islamic State’s claim that it was responsible for the attack. France, he said, already had paid a high price “in blood” for several terrorist attacks.

Christian Guibbert, a former police officer, was shopping in the supermarket with his wife when he heard shots. He told a French news organization that he hid his wife and several other customers in a walk-in refrigerator in the store before trying to escape through an emergency exit.

Guibbert said the gunman had seen him hiding, so he ran. He escaped just as police were arriving.

“I saw one person on the ground and a person who was extremely excited who had a handgun in one hand and knife in the other and was shouting, ‘Allahu akbar,’” Guibbert said. “He was very agitated. I knew at once it was a terrorist. He shot several times in the air.”

Willsher is a special correspondent for The Times.

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UPDATES:

1:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details

10:40 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details and further comments from Macron as well as a witness.

9:55 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

7:10 a.m.: This article was updated with a police union official’s report that the suspect had been fatally shot and comments from French President Emmanuel Macron.

5:15 a.m.: This article was updated with a comment from the prime minister.

4:50 a.m.: This article was updated with one dead in the market.

4:35 a.m.: This article was updated with information from Delanouvelle.

This article was originally published at 4:15 a.m.


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