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Tourists shelter in Notre Dame Cathedral as hammer-wielding assailant attacks police

Police said they fired on the man after he threatened them and passersby in the crowded terrace outside the cathedral, then struck one officer in the head with the hammer.

A hammer-wielding assailant shouting, "This is for Syria!," attacked police outside Notre Dame Cathedral on Tuesday, setting off a security scramble at one of Paris' best-known landmarks. But he was wounded by police gunfire before he could seriously injure anyone.

The abortive attack was the second strike in four days at a landmark in a European capital, coming on the heels of an assault that left seven people dead and dozens hurt in London. French authorities identified Tuesday's attacker as an Algerian man carrying student identification and said he was armed with two kitchen knives in addition to the hammer.

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The assailant, who was hospitalized along with one police officer, apparently acted alone, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told reporters.

Hundreds of tourists were trapped for a time in the soaring 12th century cathedral, whose flying buttresses and stained-glass windows make it one of Paris' most photographed sites. Visitors and locals alike scattered as gunfire rang out in the cathedral's broad plaza alongside the Seine river in central Paris.

Police swiftly converged on the area, shouting at passersby to stay back. Onlookers immediately began tweeting about the unfolding event.

Among the tourists taking shelter in Notre Dame was Nancy Soderberg, a former White House deputy national security advisor and ambassador to the United Nations. She was visiting the cathedral with her 16-year-old niece when a clergyman announced that there had been "an incident" outside.

She tweeted a dramatic photograph of visitors in the cathedral with their hands raised as police searched the building.

"It was really frightening," Soderberg said by phone. "No one knew what was going on, although everyone was very calm.… Once they close the doors, you can't hear anything outside; they're so thick."

After nearly two hours, a clergyman informed them that the incident was over and that they would be allowed to leave after undergoing checks. The Lord's Prayer was recited in French and English.

"I thought it was very well handled, but it makes you think twice," Soderberg said.

She and her niece were also in London on Saturday night when three attackers used a van to ram pedestrians on London Bridge and then slashed patrons in nearby Borough Market, although the two were in a different part of the city

"I think it is a strong signal that we need to work together to get to the bottom of these issues," Soderberg said. "People need to be vigilant, but we can't let [terrorists] ruin our way of life.

On a cloudy midafternoon, the esplanade outside the cathedral was crowded with tourists and vendors. A witness, David Rahul Metreau, told France's BFMTV that he had heard two shots about 4:20 p.m., then looked down from his apartment window to see a man on the ground, surrounded by emergency personnel.

France has been under a state of emergency since the November 2015 bombings and shootings in Paris that killed 130 people. In the intervening months, there have been scattered incidents, most involving attacks on police and other security personnel.

Two months ago, a police officer was shot dead by an attacker on the Champs-Elysees. The killer was shot to death by other officers. Attacks at the Louvre Museum in February and at Paris' Orly airport in March targeted soldiers.

Tuesday's episode began when the attacker "approached a police officer, took a hammer from his backpack and hit the police officer over the head," police spokesman Yves Lefebvre said. Police opened fire, wounding the man in the legs.

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The officer's injuries were not believed to be serious, he said.

Out of long practice, authorities were quick to put out word that the incident had ended relatively peacefully. Forty minutes after the attack, the Paris prefecture of police tweeted: "Situation under control. One police officer injured. The attacker has been neutralized and taken to hospital."

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Special correspondent Willsher reported from Paris and Times staff writers Zavis and King from Los Angeles and Washington respectively.

UPDATES:

1:55 p.m.: The story has been updated with additional witness accounts.

12:05 p.m.: This story has been updated with an interview with Nancy Soderberg and other details.

9:25 a.m.: This story has been updated with man reportedly shouting "It's for Syria," other details.

9:00 a.m.: This story has been updated with Nancy Soderberg tweet and comments, mention of London attack.

8:45 a.m.: This story has been updated with additional background, police statements.

8:30 a.m.: This story has been updated with additional details, staff reporting.

8:10 a.m.: This story has been updated with Paris police saying an officer shot and injured an attacker.

7:55 a.m.: This story has been updated with information on police activity in the area.

This story originally published at 7:40 a.m.

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