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Hostage drama as Paris massacre suspects cornered
[PARIS] Two brothers suspected of slaughtering 12 people in an Islamist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo seized a hostage Friday as police cornered the gunmen northeast of the capital in a dramatic climax to the manhunt.
Snipers were deployed on roofs and helicopters swooped low over a small printing business in the town of Dammartin-en-Goele, only 12 kilometres (seven miles) from Paris's main Charles de Gaulle airport.
Ahead of the stand-off, police had already exchanged fire with the pair in a high-speed car chase. Prosecutors told AFP there had been "no casualties reported" in the immediate aftermath of the shoot-out.
One witness described coming face-to-face at the printer's with one of the suspects, dressed in black, wearing a bullet-proof vest and carrying what looked like a Kalashnikov.
The witness told France Info radio that the man said: "'Leave, we don't kill civilians anyhow'." As the small town of 8,000 people became the epicentre of the siege, it emerged that the killing on Thursday of a policewoman was carried out by a gunman linked to the two suspects.
The latest developments in the inquiry have established "a connection" between the shooting death of the officer by a gunman, who was still on the run, and the two brothers apparently behind the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo, police sources said.
In Dammartin-en-Goele, residents stayed indoors as the hostage drama unfolded.
One 60-year-old choked back tears as she said how elite forces burst into the shop where her daughter works and ordered them to take cover.
"My daughter told me: 'Don't be scared mummy, we're well protected. She was calm but me, I'm scared. I'm really scared," said the woman.
Prior to the standoff, the suspects had hijacked a Peugeot 206 nearby from a woman who said she recognised them as the brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, accused of killing 12 people in Wednesday's attack on Charlie Hebdo, which repeatedly lampooned the Prophet Mohammed.
President Francois Hollande rushed to the interior meeting to be briefed on the situation as Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that France was at "war" with terrorism, but "not in a war against religion." "It will without doubt be necessary to take measures" to respond to the terrorist "threat," said Valls.
Two Air France planes were forced to abort their landing at Paris's main Charles-de-Gaulle airport and go round again 'due to the presence of helicopters... flying over the zone at low-altitude," the airline said.
The spectacular endgame came as it emerged the brothers had been on a US terror watch list "for years".
And as fears spread in the wake of the attack, the head of Britain's domestic spy agency MI5 warned that Islamist militants were planning other "mass casualty attacks against the West" and that intelligence services may be powerless to stop them.
Wednesday's bloodbath at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris has sparked a global chorus of outrage, with impromptu and poignant rallies around the world in support of press freedom under the banner "jesuischarlie" (I am Charlie).
US President Barack Obama was the latest to sign a book of condolence in Washington with the message "Vive la France!" as thousands gathered in Paris on a day of national mourning Thursday, and the Eiffel Tower dimmed its lights to honour the dead.
And as a politically divided and crisis-hit France sought to pull together in the wake of the tragedy, the head of the country's Muslim community - the largest in Europe - urged imams to condemn terrorism at Friday prayers.
In a highly unusual step, President Francois Hollande met far-right leader Marine Le Pen at the Elysee Palace later Friday, as France geared up for a "Republican march" on Sunday expected to draw hundreds of thousands.
French authorities had raised the security alert to the highest possible level in the region of Picardy, to the northeast of Paris, as forces tightened their noose on the brothers, Cherif, 32 and Said, 34.
Around 24 hours into the manhunt, the brothers were identified after holding up a petrol station 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Paris.
Mr Cazeneuve announced that a total of 88,000 security forces were mobilised across the country and that an international meeting on terrorism would take place in Paris on Sunday.
Nine people had already been detained as part of the operation, Mr Cazeneuve said.
Meanwhile, questions mounted as to how a pair well-known for jihadist views could have slipped through the net and attack Charlie Hebdo.
Cherif Kouachi was a known jihadist convicted in 2008 for involvement in a network sending fighters to Iraq.
Said, his brother, has been "formally identified" as the main attacker in Wednesday's bloodbath. Both brothers were born in Paris to Algerian parents.
A senior US administration official told AFP that one of the two brothers was believed to have trained with Al-Qaeda in Yemen, while another source said that the pair had been on a US terror watch list "for years".
The brothers were both flagged in a US database as terror suspects, and also on the no-fly list, meaning they were barred from flying into the United States, the officials said.
The Islamic State group's radio praised them as "heroes" and Somalia's Shebab militants, Al-Qaeda's main affiliate in Africa, praised the massacre as a "heroic" act.
Refusing to be cowed, the controversial magazine plans a print run of one million copies instead of its usual 60,000, as journalists from all over the French media landscape piled in to help out the decimated staff.
"It's very hard. We are all suffering, with grief, with fear, but we will do it anyway because stupidity will not win," said columnist Patrick Pelloux.