French rally for attack victims on eve of Paris march of 'millions'

10th January 2015, Comments 0 comments

More than 700,000 people defiantly rallied throughout France Saturday in solidarity with victims of this week's Islamist attacks, on the eve of a march in Paris expected to dwarf that figure.

The massive rallies are in tribute to the 17 victims of the three-day killing spree, and security forces were mapping out a major deployment aimed at preventing fresh violence.

World leaders including British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were set to attend Sunday's march in support of France, badly shaken by the violence.

The king and queen of Jordan and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are also among those set to take part.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls predicted that millions of people would turn out on Sunday to honour the dead and decry the fundamentalist attacks.

"I have no doubt that millions of citizens will come to express their love of liberty, their love of fraternity," he told thousands gathered near where a gunman killed four hostages at a kosher supermarket on Friday.

"France without Jews is no longer France," Valls added.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu told French Jews Saturday that Israel was their home.

"To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home," he said in a televised statement, referring to the Jewish practice of facing Jerusalem during prayer.

"Unless the world comes to its senses, terror will continue to strike in other places," he added in remarks on his official Twitter account.

- Gunman's girlfriend still sought -

Security levels were kept at France's highest level, with the girlfriend of one of three gunmen killed in a fiery climax to twin hostage dramas on Friday still on the loose.

But a police source revealed that 26-year-old Hayat Boumeddiene, the "armed and dangerous" partner of Amedy Coulibaly who took shoppers hostage in the Jewish supermarket, was not in France at the time of the killings.

Coulibaly shot dead a young policewoman on Thursday and then took the shoppers hostage Friday, and while police had suspected Boumeddiene may have had a role in her partner's violent acts, she was likely in Turkey then, the anonymous source said.

The source, who declined to be named, said investigators were checking whether she was now in Syria.

At the same time, a judicial source told AFP that five other people held after the assaults, including the wife of Cherif Kouachi -- one of the two brothers who attacked the Paris office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, were all released on Saturday.

Meanwhile, France deployed hundreds of troops around Paris Saturday, further beefing up security on the eve of Sunday's march.

Already, Saturday's rallies drew some 700,000 onto the streets in cities across France in poignantly silent marches after the nation's bloodiest week in more than half a century.

"The real battle is to defend freedom of thought," Yamina, a 40-year-old demonstrator in the city of Marseilles, said with tears in her eyes, while marchers carried signs declaring "Not afraid!"

The three-day killing spree began Wednesday with the massacre at Charlie Hebdo that saw Cherif and Said Kouachi massacre 12 people including some of the country's best-known cartoonists and a day later, Coulibaly shot dead the policewoman.

The massive manhunt for the two brothers developed into a car chase Friday and then a tense standoff as they took one person hostage in a printing firm northeast of Paris.

The small town of Dammartin-en-Goele was transformed into what looked like a war zone, with elite forces deploying snipers, helicopters and heavy-duty military equipment as they surrounded the pair.

With all eyes on the siege outside Paris, suddenly explosions and gunfire shook the City of Light itself as Coulibaly stormed a Jewish supermarket on the eastern fringes of the capital.

- 'Appalling anti-Semitic act' -

In what Hollande called an "appalling anti-Semitic act", Coulibaly took terrified shoppers hostage hours before the Jewish Sabbath, killing four.

As the sun set, the brothers in Dammartin-en-Goele charged out of the building with guns blazing in a desperate last stand, before being cut down.

Within minutes, elite commando units moved in Paris against Coulibaly, who had threatened to execute his hostages unless the brothers were released.

He had just knelt for his evening prayer when the special forces struck. Explosions rocked the neighbourhood -- one lighting up the shopfront in a fireball -- and shooting erupted as the commandos burst in.

"It's war!" shouted a mother as she pulled her daughter away.

Up to five people -- including a three-year-old boy -- survived hidden inside a refrigerator for five hours, with police pinpointing their location using their mobile phones, prosecutors and relatives said.

In the printing firm, the brothers took the manager hostage, later releasing him after he helped Said with a neck wound, while a second man hid beneath a sink upstairs.

After Friday's dramatic events, Hollande warned grimly that the threats facing France were not over -- comments followed by a chilling new threat from the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula group.

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.

- 'Clear failings' -

Leaders have urged the country to pull together in grief and determination, but questions are mounting over how the three men -- Cherif and Said Kouachi, and Coulibaly -- slipped through the security net.

Valls admitted there had been "clear failings" in intelligence.

All three had a radical past and were known to French intelligence.

Cherif Kouachi, 32, was a known jihadist who was convicted in 2008 for involvement in a network sending fighters to Iraq.

His brother Said, 34, was known to have travelled to Yemen in 2011, where he received weapons training from AQAP.

It also emerged that the brothers had been on a US terror watch list "for years".

Coulibaly, 32 -- who met Cherif Kouachi in prison -- was sentenced to five years in prison in 2013 for his role in a failed bid to break an Algerian Islamist, Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, out of jail.

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© 2015 AFP

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