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Paris attacks: France, allies signal major response

Sunday, November 15, 2015 - 00:00

[PARIS] French President François Hollande decried the massacres across Paris as an "act of war" by the Islamic State, amplifying signals Saturday of a major response from France and its allies after coordinated gunfire and bombings that killed at least 127 people.

Moments later, a message attributed to the Islamic State asserted responsibility for the worst attacks in France since World War II and among of the most deadly terrorist strikes on Western soil since Sept 11, 2001.

It also further reinforced worries of expanded Islamic State reach through recruitment and propaganda, and apparent evolving tactics among its fighters that include commando-style raids against its foes in the West and elsewhere.

Left behind in Paris were the latest scars, said Pope Francis, from the "piecemeal Third World War." One survivor described the gunmen coldly picking off hostages in a packed concert hall as if "we were birds." At least 300 people remained hospitalized, medical officials told news agencies. Initial reports of a death toll higher than 127 were revised down by authorities after they received a full accounting from the various attack sites - where mourners left flowers and notes of sympathy beside police tape and barricades.

The fallout quickly rippled across Europe and beyond.

Border checks were imposed on European frontiers that are normally wide open. A terminal at Britain's Gatwick airport was evacuated after a suspicious package was found amid heightened surveillance. Iran's president cancelled a trip to Italy and France in the wake of the attacks.

Extra security measures took effect across major American cities. The US State Department also was working to put together a full list of Americans injured in the attacks, but no figure was immediately available, said deputy spokesman Mark Toner. "This is Europe now," said an air passenger from Spain, Marina Alcon, after being herded into a newly created line for passport checks at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris.

And even as France tries to rebound from Friday's chaos - amid three days of state-declared mourning - its security chiefs must look ahead to the huge task of hosting world leaders, including President Barack Obama, at a climate summit later this month. France insisted there were no plans to cancel the gathering.

The Islamic State - in statements in Arabic, French and English - described the attacks as long in the planning stages, and suggested Friday was selected to coincide with a soccer match between Germany and France that Hollande attended. Several of the victims were at the stadium.

It described Paris as the capital of a country that "carries the cross in Europe" and said the assailants sought to "cast terror into the hearts" of the West in "their very own homeland." Few details were made public on those who waged the attacks, but a Syrian passport was found on the body of one of the suicide bombers at France's national soccer stadium, The Associated Press reported, citing French police.

A day after declaring a nationwide state of emergency, Hollande said the attacks had been "organized and planned from outside" and vowed "merciless" retaliation.

Hollande's statement also marked the clearest sign that authorities could significantly boost the U.S.-led military effort to strike the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Earlier Friday, Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq cut off a key supply line for the Islamic State.

The Paris attacks, Hollande said, were "committed by a terrorist army, the Islamic State group, a jihadist army, against France, against the values that we defend everywhere in the world, against what we are: A free country that means something to the whole planet." In Vienna, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cut short a private meeting before a conference on the crisis in Syria, where Russia began military operations in September to back the embattled government. "We are in absolute and total agreement that these kinds of attacks are the most vile, horrendous, outrageous unacceptable acts on the planet," Kerry said. "And the one thing we can say to those people is that what they do in this is stiffen our resolve - all of us - to fight back," he said.

France, meanwhile, is under its most serious lockdown in decades. Many public sites were shut and soldiers took up positions in Paris and elsewhere. The Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors, news reports said. "It was very quiet at the train station this morning," said Matiau Pons, who watched police race to one of the attack sites and then holed up at home as the horrors unfolded. "It was silence. Very heavy." For Toronto native Max Mandel, the somber mood Saturday rekindled memories of the Twin Towers. "I was in New York on 9/11, so it was a familiar feeling," he said Saturday.

At half a dozen sites across Paris - a soccer stadium, restaurants, a concert hall - the attackers carried out suicide bombings, hurled grenades and shot hostages dead in a frenzy of violence that paralyzed the city.

Friday was the second time this year that the City of Light has been a scene of mass murder; in January, Islamist gunmen attacked the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, leaving a total of 17 dead.

The latest violence will only heighten the tension on a continent that is already on edge from the accumulated strain of a historic migration crisis, growing Islamist extremism and increasingly polarized politics.

The violence was quickly celebrated online by backers of the Islamic State and other extremist groups. The scale and sophistication of the attacks will be likely to prompt questions about how the planning for such an operation evaded the scrutiny of French intelligence services.

The Paris prosecutor's office announced Saturday that all eight of the attackers had been killed - seven of them by detonating explosives. Still, authorities warned that accomplices could remain at large.

The killers traced an arc across the city, targeting lightly secured facilities where tourists and residents had been enjoying the sort of experiences and events that define Friday night in Paris on a cool November evening. Soccer games, concerts and evening meals were all violently disrupted by the sounds of explosions and gunfire.

The scene of the worst carnage was the 19th century Bataclan concert hall, one of the city's most famous music venues, where hundreds of people had gathered for a show by an American band, Eagles of Death Metal.

As attacks reverberated elsewhere in the city, gunmen stormed the building. Witnesses said three or four men, clad in black, used assault rifles to mow down audience members, shooting some as they dove to the floor seeking safety."A bloodbath," Julien Pearce told CNN. The attackers were shooting "as if we were birds," he added.

Police surrounded the building and, amid the boom of explosions and rattle of gunfire, moved in. As they did so, the attackers blew themselves up with explosive belts, police said.

Outside a popular café, witnesses reported seeing piles of bodies in the street.

At the soccer match, terrified fans gathered on the field, barred by authorities from leaving after suicide bombers detonated explosives outside the stadium just north of Paris. The blasts near the stadium prompted authorities to evacuate Hollande, who was among thousands watching a friendly match between France and Germany.

Hollande went on national television Friday night to announce a state of emergency, including restrictions at French borders and the deployment of the army. The president's office said 1,500 French troops would hit the streets of Paris to back up police.

The border controls came amid growing signs across Europe that the continent's tradition of free movement is at grave risk. Despite rules for passport-free travel, Sweden instituted border checks this week to better control an unprecedented flow of migrants from the Middle East, southern Asia and Africa. Slovenia rolled out razor wire on its border with Croatia.

While the new French border controls were expected to be strict, international airlines and trains appeared to still be operating.

In Washington, a somber Obama appeared in the White House briefing room to offer condolences and US help "to bring these terrorists to justice." He said the wave of violence was not just an assault on France but "an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share." Obama, who is scheduled to leave Saturday for the Group of 20 summit in Turkey, said he spoke prior to the attacks with Hollande.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday delivered sobering remarks about the attacks. "Behind us," she said, "lies one of the most horrible nights Europe has experienced in a long time."

WASHINGTON POST

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