Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris attacks: Islamic State claims responsibility; French president decries 'act of war'

Henry Chu Contact Reporter

November 14, 2015 6:19am

The extremist group Islamic State claimed responsibility Saturday for Friday night’s bombings and mass shootings in this shell-shocked city, an extraordinary string of assaults that killed more than 120 people and that French President Francois Hollande called “an act of war.”

As residents tried to absorb the enormity of the deadliest terrorist attack to hit France, authorities scrambled to determine who the assailants and their associates were, and braced for questions as to whether an intelligence failure contributed to the catastrophe.

The apparently coordinated attacks targeted people enjoying a Friday night out at restaurants and entertainment venues around Paris, including a concert hall and a sports arena. Islamic State said it struck “carefully chosen locations in the heart of the capital of France” in retaliation for French airstrikes on territory it controls in the Middle East.

Hollande said the death toll was at least 127. But with scores of people injured, many of them critically, the count seemed certain to rise. It is Europe’s worst terrorist attack since bombs on Madrid’s transport system killed nearly 200 people in March 2004.

“This is an act of barbarity,” Hollande said, pledging to use “all means anywhere, inside or outside the country” to defeat Islamic State, which he labeled a “terrorist army.”

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He called for a three-day national mourning period. Earlier, he declared a state of emergency in France and ordered the country’s borders tightened.

Defying both the attackers’ attempt to sow fear and officials’ appeal to stay home, some Parisians were out on the streets Saturday, trying to recapture a bit of the rhythm of ordinary life, though in subdued and somber fashion. Others lined up to donate blood at hospitals, which were overwhelmed by the number of injured who streamed through their doors late Friday night.

Many shops and other businesses -- including Disneyland Paris, one of the city’s top attractions -- remained closed Saturday.

Residents who ventured outside Saturday were joined by 1,500 French troops deployed to reinforce soldiers already stationed in Paris following its last terrorist attack, the slaying of 17 people in January at the headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket.

Several of Friday’s attacks occurred in the same general area as the Charlie Hebdo offices.

The identities of the alleged attackers were either not known or were not being released. Police said all eight assailants were dead. Seven had blown themselves up, and one was shot by officers before he could detonate his explosive vest, officials said. They were France’s first recorded suicide bombings.

If the attackers turn out to be French-born, fears of more “homegrown” terrorism -- already fanned by the Charlie Hebdo massacre, whose plotters were French -- will likely increase.

French media reported Saturday that a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the three bombers who struck the Stade de France sports arena, where a soccer match between France and Germany was held Friday night.

France’s Muslim community braced for a potential backlash. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the country saw a spike in acts of anti-Muslim aggression, such as vandalism of mosques. France is home to the highest proportion of Muslims -- 7.5% -- of any country in Western Europe.

Details of how Friday’s assaults were carried out remained hazy. It was still unclear, for example, whether the restaurants and concert theater were attacked by two separate teams of militants or one group that went from one place to another.

The site of greatest slaughter was the Bataclan theater, a popular venue where the Southern California-based band Eagles of Death Metal was performing Friday night when the audience came under siege.

Attackers opened fire on the crowd with automatic weapons, shouting “God is great!” or blaming France for airstrikes on Islamic State in Syria, according to some reports. Dozens of concert-goers were killed before French forces stormed the theater.

Many Parisians posted appeals and photos on social media asking for news of friends or loved ones whom they had not heard from since the attacks. One man said on Twitter that a government hotline set up to inquire about missing persons was so overloaded that calls could not get through.

Well-wishers left flowers at the various attack sites, several of which were blocked off by police.

In its statement claiming responsibility, Islamic State warned that France would remain at the “top of the list” of targets for attacks.

In Vienna, where he was meeting his Russian counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry joined the growing chorus of leaders around the world who condemned the assaults in strong terms.

“These kinds of attacks are the most vile, horrendous, outrageous, unacceptable acts on the planet,” Kerry said. “We are witnessing a kind of medieval and modern fascism at the same time, which has no regard for life, which seeks to destroy and create chaos and disorder and fear.”

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