France train gunman being treated as suspected 'terrorist'

25th August 2015, Comments 0 comments

French prosecutors said Tuesday that the Moroccan man arrested for last week's train attack is being treated as a suspected "terrorist" who planned to kill a large number of passengers.

Ayoub El Khazzani, 25, boarded the train in Brussels on Friday armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and 270 rounds of ammunition, as well a Luger pistol, a bottle of petrol and a box-cutter, said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.

He walked out of a toilet cubicle topless and armed before being wrestled to the floor and subdued by two young American off-duty servicemen, their friend and a 62-year-old British consultant.

A Franco-American man was shot and injured in the struggle.

Khazzani's claims to investigators that he was only planning to rob passengers were "barely credible", said Molins, adding that he had grown increasingly evasive in his responses to police and stopped responding entirely on Monday.

Molins outlined a raft of evidence indicating why Khazzani was being probed for "attempted murder" as part of a terrorist plot.

This included the fact that Khazzani flew back in June from a town in southern Turkey near the Syrian border, and that he watched a jihadist video on his mobile phone just prior to launching the attack.

Molins also raised suspicions about how Khazzani was able to afford a 149-euro ($171) first class train ticket, given his claims to sleeping rough in Brussels.

Ticket sellers at the station have told investigators that Khazzani paid in cash and turned down an earlier journey, which Molins said was an indication the target had been carefully chosen in advance.

Khazzani also claims he found the stash of weapons and mobile phone in a park where he was sleeping rough the night before.

French authorities have until Tuesday evening to charge or release Khazzani, who was on the radar of several European intelligence agencies.

But several gaps remain in his back story.

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

Molins said he had also spent time in France in 2014 working for mobile phone operator Lycamobile -- a claim confirmed by the head of the firm who said Khazzani stayed for two months and left because he did not have the right work papers.

- 'Message of courage' -

France has been on high alert since three jihadist gunmen went on a killing spree in and near Paris in January, leaving 17 people dead.

"We are still exposed," French President Francois Hollande warned Tuesday.

"The aggression that took place on Friday... which could have degenerated into a monstrous carnage... is fresh proof that we must prepare for other attacks and therefore protect ourselves."

Meanwhile, the US city of Sacramento is preparing a parade of honour for the three young Americans who tackled the gunman: Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old National Guardsman, Spencer Stone, a 23-year-old US Air Force member, and Anthony Sadler, also 23, a student at the state university.

They were awarded the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honour, by Hollande on Monday, along with British consultant Chris Norman who helped overwhelm Khazzani on the Amsterdam to Paris train.

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

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

Speaking after the ceremony, Norman said: "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?'."

© 2015 AFP

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