French police have searched the home of a man suspected of driving a car into a group of soldiers in a Paris suburb, injuring six, to establish whether he has links to terrorist organisations.
The man, who police shot and arrested earlier on Wednesday after a motorway chase in northern France, was reported to be a 36-year-old living in a north-west outskirts of Paris. He was not believed to be on the national security list.
Police confirmed the black rented BMW stopped by armed officers was the same vehicle used in the attack, but were unable to confirm the involvement of the driver who was reportedly unarmed. He was taken to hospital in a “serious” condition after being shot five times near a petrol station between Boulogne-sur-Mer and Calais. A police officer was injured by a stray bullet during the arrest.
After spotting the BMW on the motorway, police vehicles tried to force it to pull over, but the driver reportedly rammed several cars in an attempt to get away. Armed officers, despatched from Lille and Rouen, took over the chase. Police say they opened fire after the driver made a gesture that suggested he was about to pull out a gun.
The incident in Paris occurred at about 8am during the changeover of soldiers stationed at Place de Verdun, not far from the town hall in Levallois-Perret. Six members of the 35th infantry regiment were injured in the apparent ambush, three seriously. None has life-threatening injuries.
Patrick Balkany, mayor of Levallois-Perret, told BFMTV a BMW parked nearby appeared to have been waiting for the soldiers to leave their barracks. The vehicle was driven the wrong way down a one-way street before it struck the troops.
Balkany described the attack as a “deliberate aggression”.
He added: “It’s without doubt a deliberate act … This vehicle was waiting for them. The BMW accelerated very quickly the moment they came out. This happened in the middle of the town. It happened very quickly.
“Levallois is a calm place … this is an odious aggression against our military that nobody expected.”
The weekly council of ministers was taking place at the Élysée Palace as the first reports emerged. Counter-terrorism prosecutors later opened an investigation into “attempted murder of those in a position of authority linked to a terrorist organisation”.
Witnesses suggested the driver was the only person in the vehicle, which was allegedly parked in a cul-de-sac near Place de Verdun before the incident. The area was sealed off as security services continued their investigation. Police officials said the driver apparently rammed into the soldiers as they emerged from a building to approach their vehicles to start a new patrol shift.
Nadia LeProhon was startled by the loud crash outside her building and rushed outside to see two soldiers on the ground. Other soldiers ran after a speeding car, shouting: “After him. Follow that car.”
She said the scream that followed the crash still echoed in her head. “I’ll never forget that scream ... of pain and distress,” she said.
Jean-Claude Veillant, a nearby resident, said he saw two uniformed soldiers lying prone on the ground when he came down to the entrance of his building. “It was horrible,” he said, adding that both soldiers appeared to be in bad shape.
The soldiers were deployed as part of Opération Sentinelle. About 10,000 soldiers and 4,700 police and gendarmes are involved in the operation, which was launched after the January 2015 terrorist attacks.
Gérard Collomb, the interior minister, visited the scene of the attack on Wednesday afternoon. He said the car had been driven slowly down the street, and about five metres from the soldiers suddenly accelerated. “It was clearly a deliberate act,” Collomb added.
Although French authorities remain cautious as to the motives of the driver, the incident appears to be the latest assault on France’s security forces.
It came four days after Opération Sentinelle soldiers arrested an 18-year-old man with a history of psychological problems at the Eiffel Tower, where he had brandished a knife and shouted “Allahu Akbar”. He told investigators he wanted to kill a soldier, sources close to the case told Agence France-Presse.
In April, a police officer was killed in a shooting on the Champs-Elysées. In June, an Islamic State supporter drove a car loaded with gas bottles into a military vehicle on the same road. The attacker died when the car caught fire. No soldiers were injured.
Levallois-Perret is home to France’s main intelligence agency and is a staging point for soldiers assigned to protect prominent sites in the French capital.
Source: The Guardian (UK)