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TERRORISM

Police widen probe into Chechen-born Paris knife attacker

French investigators will widen their probe Monday to include possible help provided to the Chechen-born 20-year-old whose stabbing spree in central Paris, claimed by the Islamic State group, left one person dead and four seriously wounded.

Police widen probe into Chechen-born Paris knife attacker
Photo: AFP

The man, identified as naturalised Frenchman Khamzat Azimov, carried out the attack Saturday night in a lively area of theatres and restaurants near the city's historic opera house.

The knifeman, whose rampage followed a series of jihadist assaults in France that have killed 246 people since 2015, was shot dead by police after an officer failed to subdue him with a Taser.

A source close to the inquiry said Azimov grew up with his family in Strasbourg, eastern France, which has a large community of Chechen refugees.

His parents, now living in Paris, have been taken into custody as well as a friend in Strasbourg described as the “individual closest” to Azimov, according to a source close to the investigation.

Amaq, the IS propaganda agency, released a video on Sunday in which it claimed responsibility for the attack, with footage which it claims shows Azimov pledging allegiance to the jihadist group.

IS has long urged followers to seek “martyrdom” by targeting American or European “infidels” by any available means, and allegiance videos help the group bolster its claims of responsibility.

Although Azimov had no criminal record, he had been on both of France's main watchlists for suspected radicals — the so-called “S file” and a more targeted File for the Prevention of Terrorist Radicalisation (FSPRT), which focuses on people judged to be terror threats — since 2016.

One source said he had been questioned last year “because he knew a man who was in contact with a person who had gone to Syria”.

Hundreds of fighters from Chechnya have joined Islamic militant groups in recent years, following two bloody separatist wars against Russian-backed authorities in the 1990s and 2000s.

Azimov became a French citizen in 2010 after his mother was naturalised, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told French television.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said on the Telegram messenging app that Azimov had obtained a Russian passport when he was 14, before obtaining French nationality.

Kadyrov said France bears “full responsibility” for the attack, because although Azimov was born in Chechnya “he grew up and formed his personality, his opinions and convictions within French society”.

'He looked crazy'

A 29-year-old man was killed in the attack, while a Chinese man aged 34 who lives in Luxembourg and a woman of 54 were seriously wounded and rushed to hospital.

A 26-year-old woman and a man of 31 were slightly wounded. Officials said all the wounded were out of danger.

Witnesses described dramatic scenes as the knifeman struck, walking along stabbing people and yelling “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest).

“I was taking orders and I saw a young woman panicking and trying to get into the restaurant,” Jonathan, a waiter at a Korean restaurant, told AFP.

“The attacker entered a shopping street, I saw him with a knife in his hand,” he said. “He looked crazy.” 

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “France has once again paid the price in blood but will not give an inch to the enemies of freedom.”

“So sad to see the Terror Attack in Paris,” US President Donald Trump added in a tweet late Sunday, adding: “This kind of sickness and hatred is not compatible with a loving, peaceful, and successful country.” 

'No zero risk'

The attack again underscored the difficulty in tracking suspected extremists by police facing thousands of potential risks, either from home-grown radicals or recent arrivals.

About half of the nearly 20,000 people on the FSPRT watchlist are under active surveillance.

“What good does this S file do if we don't use it to get these ticking time bombs off French soil,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen posted on Twitter.

But spokesman Griveaux defended the government, saying it had foiled 22 terror attacks over the past 15 months.

“Unfortunately, there's no such thing as zero risk,” he said.

France has suffered a series of major Islamist attacks including the massacre at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, followed 10 months later by the killing spree in Paris that claimed 130 lives. The next summer the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice killed 86.

Most of the attacks have either been claimed by the Islamic State or were carried out in its name.

Thousands of French troops remain on the streets under an anti-terror operation known as Sentinelle, patrolling transport hubs, tourist hotspots and other sensitive sites.

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TERRORISM

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks

US Vice President Kamala Harris and French Prime Minister Jean Castex laid wreaths at a Paris cafe and France's national football stadium Saturday six years since deadly terror attacks that left 130 people dead.

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks
US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff lay flowers after ceremonies at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, at which 130 people were killed during the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/POOL/AFP

The attacks by three separate teams of Islamic State group jihadists on the night of November 13, 2015 were the worst in France since World War II.

Gunmen mowed down 129 people in front of cafes and at a concert hall in the capital, while a bus driver was killed after suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the stadium in its suburbs.

Harris, wrapping up a four-day trip to France, placed a bouquet of white flowers in front of a plaque honouring the victims outside a Paris cafe.

Castex attended a minute of silence at the Stade de France football stadium, along with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, before laying wreaths at the sites of the other attacks inside Paris.

In front of the Bataclan concert hall, survivors and relatives of the victims listened to someone read out the names of each of the 90 people killed during a concert there six years ago.

Public commemorations of the tragedy were called off last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year we weren’t allowed to come and we all found it really tough,” said Bruno Poncet, who made it out alive of the Bataclan.

But he said the start of a trial over the attacks in September meant that those attending the commemoration this year felt more united.

‘Overcome it all’

“We’ve really bonded thanks to the trial,” he said. “During previous commemorations, we’d spot each other from afar without really daring to speak to each other. We were really shy. But standing up in court has really changed everything.”

The marathon trial, the biggest in France’s modern legal history, is expected to last until May 2022.

Twenty defendants are facing sentences of up to life in prison, including the sole attacker who was not gunned down by police, Salah Abdeslam, a French-Moroccan national who was captured in Brussels. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia.

Poncet said he felt it was crucial that he attend the hearings. “I can’t possibly not. It’s our lives that are being discussed in that room, and it’s important to come to support the others and to try to overcome it all.”

Survivors have taken to the witness stand to recount the horror of the attacks, but also to describe life afterwards.

Several said they had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, grappling with survivor’s guilt, or even feeling alienated from the rest of society.

Saturday’s commemorations are to wrap up with a minute of silence at the Stade de France in the evening before the kick-off for a game between France and Kazakhstan.

It was during a football match between France and Germany that three suicide bombers blew themselves up in 2015.

Then-French president Francois Hollande was one of the 80,000 people in the crowd, before he was discreetly whisked away to avoid triggering mass panic.

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