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Europe scrambles to reassure Jews after Copenhagen attacks

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 06:59
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Flags were flying at half-mast across Denmark after the weekend shootings on a synagogue and a cultural centre that stunned one of the world's most peaceful nations.

[COPENHAGEN] European nations scrambled on Monday to reassure their Jewish communities after deadly attacks in Copenhagen that heightened fears of a new surge in anti-Semitic violence.

Flags were flying at half-mast across Denmark after the weekend shootings on a synagogue and a cultural centre that stunned one of the world's most peaceful nations.

The suspected Danish gunman, who was shot dead shot dead by police Sunday, was identified as a 22-year-old of Palestinian origin with a history of violent crime.

Two men were charged on Monday with aiding the gunman, named by the media as Omar El-Hussein, in his lone rampage in the Danish capital that left two people dead and five policemen wounded.

France, which was rocked by Islamist attacks last month that killed 17 people including four Jews, appealed for national unity to combat "Islamo-facism".

Danish intelligence said El-Hussein may have been inspired by the Paris attacks against a kosher supermarket and satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo that published cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed.

Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt pledged to protect Denmark's small Jewish community and urged them not to answer an Israeli call for Jews to flee Europe for the Jewish state.

"The Jewish community have been in this country for centuries. They belong in Denmark, they are part of the Danish community and we wouldn't be the same without the Jewish community in Denmark," she told reporters.

She vowed that Denmark would not be intimidated by the shootings, the deadliest such attack in the country of 5.5 million.

"This is a conflict between the core values of our society and violent extremists," she said. "I want to underline that this is not a conflict between Islam and the West. This is not a conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims." The gunman was said by the media to have been released from prison just two weeks ago after serving a term for aggravated assault - raising fears he may have become radicalised behind bars.

Two suspects were charged with helping him get rid of his weapon and giving him somewhere to hide, the lawyer of one of the men, Michael Juul Eriksen, told AFP.

But he said the unnamed men denied the charges "completely".

The attacks triggered outrage from Tokyo to London, Riyadh to New York, and in Paris - France itself was reeling from the desecration of hundreds of tombs at a Jewish cemetery.

"A new type of war," thundered Denmark's right-wing Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which itself triggered violent protests across the Muslim world after publishing Mohammed cartoons in 2005.

In a rampage that bore a striking resemblance to the Paris attacks, the gunman first sprayed a volley of bullets outside a cultural centre during a panel discussion about Islam and free speech, killing documentary film-maker Finn Norgaard, 55.

In the second attack in the early hours of Sunday, the gunman opened fire outside the synagogue during a bar mitzvah, killing a 37-year-old Jewish man named as Dan Uzan who was guarding the building.

Five policemen were wounded in the two incidents before the gunman was tracked down to a working-class district of Copenhagen and killed in a shootout with police.

Meanwhile, controversial Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks who was believed to have been targeted in the first attack, has gone into hiding, with police describing his home as "not a safe place." Tearful Danes laid a sea of flowers at the sites of the killings, while the Copenhagen bourse observed a minute's silence in honour of the victims.

But dozens of bouquets were also left outside a building in the inner-city neighbourhood of Noerrebro where El-Hussein was shot dead.

A columnist in the left-of-centre Politiken newspaper linked the shootings to the rise of the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party in a country where immigrants make up about nine percent of the population.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately urged European Jews to move to his country after the Copenhagen shooting, echoing a similar call made after the Paris attacks.

But France, which has the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe, responded icily to his comments.

President Francois Hollande saying that Jews belonged in Europe and "in particular in France", while his Prime Minister Manuel Valls said: "To combat Islamo-fascism, for that is what it should be called, our force must come from unity." German Chancellor Angela Merkel also pledged to do everything to ensure the safety of Jews in a country whose very identity is shaped by the Holocaust.

Despite fears of possible attacks, Germany's carnival celebrations drew hundreds of thousands on to the streets for the traditional "Mardi Gras" parades that this year refelcted themes of terror and freedom of speech.

AFP