France investigators to decide on train gunman charges

25th August 2015, Comments 0 comments

French investigators had hours left on Tuesday to question a Moroccan gunman who was overpowered by a group of Americans and a Briton when he opened fire on a crowded Paris-bound train.

Ayoub El Khazzani, a 25-year-old who boarded the high-speed train in Brussels on Friday armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, ammunition and a box-cutter, is being grilled by anti-terror investigators, though he insists he only sought to rob passengers.

Under French law, authorities can question Khazzani, who does not speak French, for four days after detaining him, a deadline that expires Tuesday evening. At that point, they are expected to either charge him or apply for an extension.

Witnesses said he opened fire, wounding a man before being wrestled to the floor and subdued by three young Americans -- off-duty servicemen Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone and their student friend Anthony Sadler -- and a Briton, 62-year-old business consultant Chris Norman.

Khazzani was on the radar of European intelligence agencies, but gaps remain in his backstory and there have been contradictory claims from French and Spanish sources.

A Spanish counter-terrorism source said Khazzani had lived in Spain for seven years until 2014, where he came to the attention of authorities for making hardline speeches defending jihad, attending a radical mosque in Algeciras and being involved in drug trafficking.

His father said he left for France for a work contract with mobile phone operator Lycamobile -- a claim confirmed by the head of the firm who said Khazzani stayed for two months in early 2014 and left because he did not have proper work papers.

French intelligence sources, however, said he did not show up on their radar until May this year, when German authorities warned he had boarded a plane for Turkey, seen as a possible sign that he travelled to war-torn Syria.

Khazzani is said to have told investigators he is "dumbfounded" by accusations he intended to carry out a terror attack.

He said he stumbled upon a weapons stash in a park in Belgium where he sometimes slept rough and decided to use it to rob passengers, according to Sophie David, a lawyer who was temporarily assigned to his case.

Khazzani's father has described his son as a "good boy" who preferred "football and fishing" to politics.

In the last six months, Khazzani has moved around Belgium, Germany, Austria, France and Andorra, David said.

- 'A message of hope' -

The heroes who subdued Khazzani were presented with France's highest honour, the Legion d'Honneur, on Monday at the Elysee presidential palace.

Presenting the medals, President Francois Hollande said: "A terrorist decided to commit an attack. He had enough weapons and ammunition to carry out a real carnage, and that's what he would have done if you hadn't tackled him at a risk to your own lives."

"You have shown us that, faced with terror, we have the power to resist. You have given a message of courage, solidarity and hope."

Stone, who wore a sling to the ceremony due to the injuries he received to his hand, has also been nominated for the Air Force's highest medal for non-combat bravery, officials said.

He and Skarlatos flew to a US military base in Germany for health checks.

Speaking as he left the Elysee, Norman said it was "a little bit difficult to believe that it's actually happened".

"I think that one way or another, we are going to be facing this kind of problem quite a few times in the future, and I would invite you all to think about 'what would I do in that situation'.

"Act if the opportunity presents itself. Obviously you don't want to throw yourself in a situation that is completely hopeless, but act if you can."

Sadler, 23, dismissed suggestions that Khazzani was not trying to kill anyone.

"It doesn't take eight magazines (of bullets) to rob a train," he told reporters on Sunday.

National Guardsman Skarlatos added that if the attacker had known how to handle guns, he could have killed many people.

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© 2015 AFP

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