Churches torched in Charlie Hebdo protests, as France defends free speech

17th January 2015, Comments 0 comments

A violent mob torched at least seven churches in Niger's capital Niamey Saturday during fresh protests against Charlie Hebdo magazine, as France's president stressed his commitment to "freedom of expression."

With France still reeling from last week's deadly attacks that killed 17 people, jittery European countries stepped up security, with soldiers patrolling the streets of Belgium for the first time in 35 years.

Anger mounted in several Muslim countries over the satirical magazine's depiction of the prophet Mohammed, with a second day of rioting erupting in Niger.

Around 1,000 youths wielding iron bars, clubs and axes rampaged through the city, hurling rocks at police who responded with tear gas.

The French embassy in Niamey urged its citizens to stay at home, the day after a rally against Charlie Hebdo in the country's second city of Zinder left four dead and 45 injured.

"Be very cautious, avoid going out," the embassy said on its website as rioters also ransacked several French-linked businesses, including telephone kiosks run by Orange.

In his first reaction to the violence, which also erupted in Pakistan on Friday, President Francois Hollande emphasised on Saturday that France was committed to "freedom of expression", which was "non-negotiable."

Some 15,000 people also rallied in Russia's Muslim North Caucasus region of Ingushetia against Charlie Hebdo, which depicted on its most recent cover a weeping prophet holding a "Je suis Charlie" sign.

- 'They have to be punished' -

The deployment of troops in Belgium came after security forces smashed a suspected Islamist "terrorist" cell planning to kill police officers.

And in London, authorities were mulling "further measures" to protect police "given some of the deliberate targeting of the police we have seen in a number of countries across Europe and the world."

British police officers, for the most part unarmed, will reportedly be equipped with taser guns as part of reinforced security measures.

As authorities try to close the net on jihadist cells around the world, Yemen detained two Frenchmen for questioning over suspected links to Al-Qaeda.

French and Belgian authorities were grilling suspected accomplices both of the Paris gunmen and the alleged "terrorist" cell raided in eastern Belgium.

Belgian police were hunting for the suspected mastermind of the cell, a notorious 27-year-old jihadist who spent time in Syria and who may have prepared the foiled attack from bases in Greece and Turkey, according to local media.

Asked about protesters who burned the French flag, Hollande said: "They have to be punished because when it happens in France, it's intolerable, but also abroad."

"I'm thinking of countries where sometimes they don't understand what freedom of expression is because they have been deprived of it. But also, we have supported these countries in their fight against terrorism," said Hollande as he toured a market in his heartland of Tulle, central France.

In a later speech, he urged his compatriots not to change their habits, because "to do so would be to yield to terrorism."

However, he warned that "nothing will be like it was before" the attacks that rocked France last week.

Hollande, suffering from some of the worst polling ratings in modern French history before the attacks, has burnished his image, according to a poll to be published Sunday.

Nearly half of those surveyed by Ifop (46 percent) approved of his ability to "defend France's interests", a 22-point gain from the last such poll in September.

- Secret burial -

Said Kouachi, one of the jihadist brothers who gunned down 12 people at Charlie Hebdo's offices before being cut down by security forces in a siege, has already been buried in secret, it emerged on Saturday.

He was buried Friday in the eastern city of Reims, where he lived for around two years, under heavy police protection and with a handful of family members present, according to a well-informed source.

His grave was unmarked and the name of the cemetery not divulged. His brother Cherif was expected to be buried soon in the Paris suburb of Gennevilliers.

The mayor of Reims, Arnaud Robinet, said he was forced by law to accept the burial but was initially opposed to the gunman being buried in his city.

He feared "a tomb that could become a shrine for people to gather around or a pilgrimage site for fanatics."

Said Kouachi's wife decided not to attend the burial, in order to keep it secret, said her lawyer Antoine Flasaquier.

"She is now relieved that her husband has been buried with discretion and dignity," said the lawyer.

Charlie Hebdo, which has flown off the shelves in record numbers since the attacks, announced on Saturday it would extend its print run to seven million copies.

Before the assault on its Paris headquarters, Charlie Hebdo had a circulation of around 30,000, with only a handful being sold abroad.

Touring the cheese and meat stands in the Tulle market, Hollande urged locals to pick up where they left off before the worst attacks on French soil in half a century.

He said his visit was "a message to show that life goes on, that we have come through the ordeal with a great deal of dignity and efficiency."

"We are of course aware that there are still threats... but life has to go on and we need to emerge even stronger."

"That's the best response we can give."

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© 2015 AFP

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