Kerry to meet Hollande as Belgium holds anti-terror operation
US Secretary of State John Kerry was to meet with French President Francois Hollande Friday, hours after police in neighbouring Belgium launched an anti-terrorist raid that left two suspects dead and raised fresh alarm in Europe.
The top US diplomat is in Paris seeking to put an end to a furore over the absence of a senior American official at a mass rally in the wake of last week’s Islamist shootings in the French capital, which killed 17 people.
Kerry will hold talks with Hollande and will deliver a speech — some of it in French — at city hall before giving way to US singer James Taylor of “You’ve Got a Friend” fame.
“My visit to France is basically to share a big hug for Paris and express the affection of the American people for France and for our friends there who have been through a terrible time,” he said in Bulgaria ahead of his Paris trip.
The visit comes after the White House was forced to admit it had made a mistake in not sending a higher-ranking representative than US ambassador Jane Hartley to the weekend march against extremism, which was attended by dozens of world leaders.
Belgium said Thursday a third person was arrested in the terror raid, involving people who had returned from jihad in Syria, after a bloody shootout in the eastern town of Verviers, near the German border.
Belgian investigators said earlier Thursday they were probing whether an arms dealer sold weapons used in the Paris attacks, but there was no immediate confirmation of any link between the investigation and the raid.
Police also conducted around a dozen searches in Brussels and its suburbs in a sweep that came on the heels of last week’s Islamist attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris — the bloodiest in France in half a century.
– Cartoonists and police buried –
Meanwhile, poignant ceremonies took place Thursday in memory of some of those killed in the Paris attacks.
The five buried included two of the weekly’s best-known cartoonists and Franck Brinsolaro, 49, a police officer who was killed at the satirical magazine’s editorial meeting, where he’d been standing guard.
Georges Wolinski, 80, and Bernard “Tignous” Verlhac, 57, who were gunned down by two Islamist brothers in the attack claimed by Al-Qaeda, were buried at private family funerals.
Thousands braved drizzle outside the town hall memorial service for Tignous, laying flowers under a huge portrait of the cartoonist as his wife Chloe paid tribute inside.
His cartoon-covered coffin was carried through an applauding crowd for final burial, as people held aloft banners reading “Thank you Charlie Hebdo” and “Our heroes”.
The attack on the magazine by the Kouachi brothers left 12 people dead, and another gunman called Amedy Coulibaly subsequently killed a policewoman and four Jews in a supermarket. All three gunmen were also killed.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced Thursday that a Malian hailed as a “hero” after helping hostages in the supermarket attack would be granted French citizenship.
Charlie Hebdo was quick to rise up in defiance after the attacks, printing a “survivors’ issue” that sold out Wednesday before more copies of an eventual print run totalling five million hit newsstands.
The latest front cover of Charlie Hebdo depicted Prophet Mohammed with a tear in his eye, under the headline “All is forgiven”.
– Rallying cry –
He also holds a sign reading “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), the slogan that has become a global rallying cry for those expressing sympathy for the victims and support for freedom of speech.
The slogan has become so popular that the creator of “Je suis Charlie” told AFP Thursday he was seeking to legally protect the phrase from commercialisation, to stop the nearly uncontrollable flood of people seeking to profit from it.
The cover of the new issue has sparked controversy and protests in some parts of the Muslim world, where many find the depiction of the prophet highly offensive.
Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, where at least one of the Kouachi brothers trained, released a video Wednesday claiming responsibility for the attack, saying it was “vengeance” for past cartoons of the prophet.
The Afghan Taliban on Thursday condemned Charlie Hebdo’s publication of further Mohammed cartoons and praised the gunmen.
Angry protests have been staged in countries from Pakistan and Turkey to the Philippines and Mauritania.
The mainly-Muslim country of Niger on Thursday banned distribution of the weekly, with the government “vehemently” condemning the cartoon on the front cover.
Pope Francis, speaking in Manila, stressed that “you cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people’s faith, you cannot mock it”.
A Turkish court ordered a block on websites featuring images of the magazine cover and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Thursday described it as a “grave provocation”, adding: “Freedom of the press does not mean freedom to insult.”
But many have sought to calm tensions, with French Muslim leaders urging their communities to “stay calm and avoid emotive reactions”.