Crowds gather for historic Paris march of defiance and sorrow

11th January 2015, Comments 0 comments

Crowds poured into Paris Sunday for a march expected to unite more than a million people and dozens of world leaders in a historic display of defiance against terrorism.

In an unprecedented show of unity, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority will both be among those attending the rally to honour 17 victims of three days of bloodshed that included Jews and a Muslim police officer among the dead.

Under clear blue skies, emotions were already running high in the shell-shocked City of Light, with many people from all walks of life already in tears as they began to come together under the banner of freedom of speech and liberty.

Lassina Traore, a 34-year-old French-born Muslim from the Ivory Coast, gently placed 17 candles at the foot of the iconic monument of the Place de la Republique, heaped with tributes to the dead.

The march is "a real sign of how strong France is. It shows that France is strong when she is united against these people," said the consultant.

"I want to show that we're not scared of the extremists. I want to defend freedom of expression," said 70-year-old Jacqueline Saad-Rouana.

The families of those who died in the three blood-soaked days that shook France to its core will rub shoulders with royalty and heads of state within an iron ring of security.

Defences were beefed up in a jittery Paris still reeling from the Islamist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket, with thousands of extra troops and police deployed to guard the march and snipers positioned along the route.

"I have no doubt that millions of citizens will come to express their love of liberty, their love of fraternity," French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told a poignant rally on Saturday near where a gunman killed four hostages at the supermarket.

In a foretaste of the demonstration, more than 700,000 people poured onto the streets of cities across France on Saturday, many carrying banners reading "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie), the tribute to Charlie Hebdo that has been the global rallying point in the wake of the slaughter.

Many brandished pens to symbolise freedom of expression after the magazine was targeted for its cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed.

- Arson attack -

Along with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, the king and queen of Jordan will be present and a host of top European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

US President Barack Obama will be represented by Attorney General Eric Holder, who will also take part in an emergency meeting of interior ministers to discuss the threats posed by Islamic extremism.

Speaking on a visit to India, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: "We stand together this morning with the people of France. We stand together not just in anger and outrage but in solidarity and commitment in confronting extremists."

President Francois Hollande, who will lead the tributes to the victims, has warned his grieving country not to drop its guard in the face of possible new attacks.

Hollande met representatives from the Jewish community ahead of the march and its head said authorities had agreed to protect Jewish schools and synagogues with the army "if necessary."

The rampage by three gunmen, who claimed to be members of the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State extremist groups, was followed by a chilling new threat from the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

AQAP top sharia official Harith al-Nadhari warned France to "stop your aggression against the Muslims" or face further attacks, in comments released by the SITE monitoring group.

German newspaper Bild said the bloodshed in France could signal the start of a wave of attacks in Europe, citing communications by Islamic State leaders intercepted by US intelligence.

- 'Armed and dangerous' -

France's three days of terror started Wednesday when two brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, burst into the Charlie Hebdo offices and sprayed bullets into the editorial meeting, killing some of France's best-known cartoonists.

They then slaughtered a Muslim policeman in cold blood as he lay helpless on the ground before fleeing, sparking a manhunt that lasted more than 48 hours.

A day later, a third gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, shot dead a policewoman in a southern suburb of Paris.

In a video posted online Sunday, a man resembling Coulibaly said the gunmen coordinated their efforts and said he was a member of Islamic State, avenging attacks by the international community on the extremist group.

The massive manhunt for the attackers culminated in twin hostage dramas that gripped the world as Coulibaly stormed into a Jewish supermarket in eastern Paris and seized terrified shoppers.

The two brothers took one person hostage in a printing firm northeast of Paris. After a tense stand-off they charged out of the building all guns blazing before being cut down by elite commandos.

Moments later, security forces stormed the kosher supermarket, killing Coulibaly but making the grisly discovery that four innocent people had died during the hostage-taking.

Investigators have been trying to hunt down Coulibaly's partner, 26-year-old Hayat Boumeddiene, but a security source in Turkey told AFP she arrived there on January 2 and has since probably travelled to Syria.

- 'Clear failings' -

The attacks were France's bloodiest for more than half a century, with questions mounting about how the gunmen could have slipped through the net of intelligence services.

Coulibaly's mother and sisters on Saturday condemned his actions.

"We absolutely do not share these extreme ideas. We hope there will not be any confusion between these odious acts and the Muslim religion," they wrote in a statement.

Valls admitted there had been "clear failings" in intelligence as it emerged that the brothers had been on a US terror watch list "for years".

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© 2015 AFP

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