Hostages safe in Paris armed robbery

Several people taken hostage Friday evening in a Paris travel agency were released safe and sound, police said, but the armed robber who seized them was on the run.

Hostages safe in Paris armed robbery
Photo: AFP

“Armed robbery on Massena Boulevard in Paris: operation over,” police tweeted. “Six people have left. The thief is not on the premises.”

Other police sources said seven hostages had been “found safe and sound “after the hold-up at the travel agency in the Chinatown area of southern Paris' 13th arrondissement.

The incident sparked a major police operation in the French capital, where security jitters remain high after a string of terrorist attacks over the last two years, including the November 2015 Paris attacks which left 132 people dead.

Police set up a security perimeter around the Asieland travel agency, which specialises in Asian travel.

Drivers were warned to stay away from the area. Police sources told AFP earlier that the robber was armed with a handgun.

The agency sits in Paris' 13th arrondissement, a residential area that is packed with Asian restaurants and is home to a large Chinese community.

The ground-floor offices sit at the base of a large residential tower block and next to one of Paris' main tram lines.

The robber had attacked the company at around 6:30 pm (1730 GMT), trapping several people inside.

The hostages were let out around two and a half hours later, “their hands on their heads”, a police source said, adding that they were “taken into the care of emergency services in a neighbouring building”.

Police then searched the building and realised the attacker had fled the scene.

“We saw four or five people coming out with their hands on their heads, followed by around 15 officers,” local resident Zinedine told AFP.

“There was no shooting, we heard no explosion. It's over,” said the 55-year-old, who had left home to buy cigarettes.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo thanked police for their “speed and professionalism” on Twitter, adding: “I offer all my support to the staff and customers of the agency that were confronted with this criminal act.”

The capital is under tight security, with troops patrolling the streets daily, under a state of emergency imposed by President Francois Hollande after last year's Paris attacks.

The hold-up in Chinatown comes at a time of heightened safety concerns among Paris' large Chinese community following a fatal attack on a tailor in August and a series of muggings.

More than 10,000 Chinese Parisians staged a protest march in September calling for increased security for the community following the killing of Zhang Chaolin, beaten to death during a robbery.

Photo: GoogleMaps



Last French hostage held abroad is freed in Mali

Serge Lazarevic, who is believed to be the last French national being held hostage around the world has been freed in Mali, the French president announced on Tuesday.

Last French hostage held abroad is freed in Mali
An undated handout image released AQMI shows French nationals Philippe Verdon (R) and Serge Lazarevic (L) being held by AQMI Photo: AFP
"Our hostage Serge Lazarevic, our last hostage is free," Hollande said. "There are no more French hostages in any country in the world."
Lazarevic, who has dual French and Serbian citizenship, was the last French hostage still being held worldwide, after hiker Herve Gourdel was abducted in Algeria and beheaded in September by Islamic State-linked militants.
Several French citizens have been kidnapped in recent years, mostly in Africa where up to 15 were held in 2013.
Lazarevic was accompanying Frenchman Philippe Verdon on a business trip when they were both seized by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on November 24, 2011.
Verdon was found shot dead last year and Lazarevic had last been seen in an AQMI video in November in which he said he was gravely ill and believed his life to be in danger.
In a statement from the Elysée Palace, Hollande said he was pleased to announce the release of Serge Lazarevic, who was kidnapped in Hombori in Mali on November 24th 2011 and held hostage in the Sahel for more than three years.
"Serge Lazarevic will travel to Niamey and then France," the statement said. "He is relatively healthy, despite the very harsh conditions of his long captivity. He will be quickly repatriated to France."
Hollande thanked the Nigerien and Malian authorities who worked for this positive outcome, including the President Issoufou and the President Keita "for their personal involvement."
"The President of the Republic shares the joy of the family of our fellow citizen who endured the anguish of this test."
Hollande also saluted the memory of Philippe Verdon, another French hostage who was abducted with Lazarevic, but was murdered by his captors.
Questions will now inevitable be asked whether a ransom was paid to Lazarevic's captors to secure his release.
France always strenuously denies that any money is exchanged hands but a report earlier this year in the New York Times suggested Paris was the biggest payer of ransoms for hostages.
France has paid out $58 million to free hostages since 2008, putting it top of the world rankings for ransom payments, according to the report.
Although the French government angrily denied the claims, critics says the policy is creating a lucrative hostage industry.

These millions have become the principal source of funding for extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda, the newspaper said, repeating an argument made by David Cohen, US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in 2012.

The New York Times said former hostages and high level diplomats from various countries confirmed the figures on ransom payments.

Following the kidnapping of an entire French family in Cameroon last year France became the country with the most nationals being held hostage by terrorist groups around the world.

But since then various hostages have been freed, amid claims that huge ransoms were paid for their release.

With Lazarevic now released the French government can expect to be posed the same question once again.