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French forces hunt Charlie Hebdo massacre suspects

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French police stop a passing car in Longpont, northern France, on Jan 8, 2015, during searches as part of an investigation into a deadly attack the day before by armed gunmen on the Paris offices of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

[PARIS] Elite French security forces deployed helicopters in a night-time manhunt Thursday for the two brothers accused of slaughtering 12 people in an Islamist attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Hundreds of armed police and paramilitary forces combed through an area in the Aisne region near where the fugitives had earlier robbed a petrol station and abandoned their getaway car.

The gunmen were thought to be behind Wednesday's bloodbath at Charlie Hebdo magazine, the worst terrorist attack in France for half a century, which they said was revenge for the weekly's repeated publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed.

Around 24 hours into the manhunt, the brothers were identified after holding up a village petrol station, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Paris, before fleeing again, possibly on foot and still armed with at least a Kalashnikov, police said.

Special police units rushed to the scene, where a maximum security alert was declared in addition to the capital.

Moving methodically, officers in heavy black bulletproof vests searched garden huts and garages, rifles at the ready, under the nervous eyes of local residents. An AFP reporter saw them storm one house.

Every failed search only added to the mounting tension.

"I live near the woods," said village resident Roseline, a grandmother. "I'm afraid. Night is falling and they could be hiding nearby." Islamic State, the militant group sowing terror across swathes of Iraq and Syria and calling for global jihad, hailed the brothers as "heroes" on its Al-Bayan radio station.

In a further sign of the attackers' motives, a source close to the case said that Molotov cocktails and jihadist-style flags had been discovered in another getaway vehicle used by the attackers and abandoned in Paris.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that an international meeting on terrorism would take place in Paris on Sunday, including US and European officials.

As the dramatic chase unfolded, bells tolled across France at midday, public transport paused and people gathered outside the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in pouring rain with banners reading "Je Suis Charlie" (I am Charlie).

Several thousand people gathered in Paris late Thursday, hours after groups of people right across the country stood at midday to mark a minute of silence. Television footage showed children at a Muslim school in the northern city of Lille holding up sheets of paper emblazoned "not in my name".

Across the world, crowds gathered from Moscow to Washington under the banner "I am Charlie" to show support for the controversial magazine, seen by supporters as an emblem of free speech.

Charlie Hebdo reporter Laurent Leger, who miraculously survived the bloodbath by hiding under a table, gave the first eyewitness account from inside the office.

"I saw a masked man, I saw a lot of blood, I saw half the editorial team on the ground," he told France Info radio. "I saw horror." The gunmen were heard shouting "Allahu akbar" ("God is greatest") as they executed some of France's most outspoken and beloved journalists, as well as two policemen.

Meanwhile, several other incidents rocked the jittery nation.

Just south of Paris, a man with an automatic rifle shot dead a policewoman and wounded a city employee - an act that prosecutors said they were treating as terrorism, but which Cazeneuve said was not "at this stage" being linked to Wednesday's attack.

Two Muslim places of worship were fired at, prosecutors said, and there was an explosion at a kebab shop in eastern France. No casualties were reported.

Declaring Thursday a national day of mourning - only the fifth in the last 50 years - President Francois Hollande called the Charlie Hebdo attack "an act of exceptional barbarity".

The Eiffel Tower, usually as much a Paris landmark at night as during the day, dimmed its lights at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT).

The government also called for large demonstrations to show solidarity across the country on Sunday.

Arrest warrants were issued for Cherif Kouachi, 32, a known jihadist convicted in 2008 for involvement in a network sending fighters to Iraq, and his 34-year-old brother Said. Both were born in Paris to Algerian parents and were orphaned at an early age.

Cazeneuve said nine people had been detained as part of the hunt for the brothers.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, meanwhile, told French radio the two suspects were known to intelligence services and were "no doubt" being tracked before Wednesday's attack.

Mourad Hamyd, an 18-year-old suspected of being an accomplice in the attack, handed himself in after he saw his name "circulating on social media", police sources said.

It was not clear what role, if any, he played in the attack.

Hollande has ordered flags to fly at half-mast for three days in France and convened an emergency cabinet meeting.

After calling for "national unity", Hollande invited arch-rival and opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy to the Elysee Palace, his first visit since losing power in 2012.

Even before the attack, France, home to Europe's biggest Muslim population, was on high alert like many countries that have seen citizens leave to fight alongside the radical Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

France's main Islamic groups urged imams to condemn terrorism and join rallies against the attacks over the weekend.

US President Barack Obama led the global condemnation of what he called a "cowardly, evil" assault.

Charlie Hebdo will come out next week with a print-run of one million despite the decimation of its staff, one of the magazine's columnists said.

AFP