Gunmen have shot dead 12 people at the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in an apparent militant Islamist attack.
Four of the magazine’s well-known cartoonists, including its editor, were among those killed, as well as two police officers.
Eyewitnesses described seeing two black-hooded men entering the building, dressed in the typical jihadist “uniform” of black balaclavas and khaki ammunition pouches. They then opened fire with Kalashnikovs in the office, with reports of up to 50 shots fired. A social media post from France’s AFP news agency reported that the men may also have been armed with at least one rocket-launcher, though this was not corroborated by other reports.
Upon exiting the office the attackers exchanged shots with police in the street before escaping by car. They later abandoned the car in Rue de Meaux, northern Paris, where they hijacked a second car.
Footage shot by an eyewitness outside the magazine’s office shows two armed men dressed in black approach a wounded police officer lying on the pavement. One of the men shoots the officer in the head, before both men are seen running back towards a black vehicle and driving away.
Witnesses said they heard the gunmen shouting “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Great” in Arabic (“Allahu Akbar”).
Cedric Le Bechec, a 33-year-old estate agent who witnessed the attack, said that before launching the assault, the attackers approached a man in the street, saying: “Tell the media that this is al-Qaeda in the Yemen.”
Corrine Rey, a young mother and cartoonist who survived the massacre, said the men “spoke French perfectly” and claimed they were “Al-Qaeda terrorists”.
Ms Rey said she’d returned from picking up her young daughter from a kindergarten when she was confronted by two heavily armed men wearing balaclavas at the magazine office.
“I had gone to pick up my daughter at day care, arriving in front of the magazine building, where two masked and armed men brutally threatened us. They said they wanted to go up to the offices, so I tapped in the code,” she said, referring to the security system on the interphone.
The attackers went to the second floor and started firing indiscriminately in the newsroom, according to Christophe DeLoire, of Reporters Without Borders.
“This is the darkest day of the history of the French press,” he said.
Wandrille Lanos, a TV reporter who works across the road, was one of the first people to enter the Charlie Hebdo office after the attack. “As we progressed into the office, we saw that the number of casualties was very high. There was a lot of people dead on the floor, and there was blood everywhere,” he told the BBC.
Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier, 47, had received death threats in the past and was living under police protection.
French media have named the three other cartoonists killed in the attack as Jean Cabut aka Cabu, Bernard Verlhac aka Tignous and Georges Wolinski, as well as Charlie Hebdo contributor and French economist Bernard Maris.
The attack took place during the magazine’s daily editorial meeting.
At least four people were critically wounded in the attack.
The number of attackers was initially reported to be two, but French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve later said security services were hunting three “criminals,” identified as Said Kouachi (34), Cherif Kouachi (32), and Hamyd Mourad (18). Cazeneuve said that Paris had been placed on the highest alert.
A major police operation is under way to find three gunmen who fled by car.
The satirical weekly has courted controversy in the past with its irreverent take on news and current affairs. It was firebombed in November 2011 a day after it carried a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad.
The latest tweet on Charlie Hebdo’s account was a cartoon of the Islamic State militant group leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Tweet: Best wishes, by the way.
Comic caption: Best wishes. To you too, al-Baghdadi.
al-Baghdadi’s quote: And especially good health.
Charlie Hebdo’s website, which went offline during the attack, is showing the single image of “Je Suis Charlie” (I Am Charlie) on a black banner, referring to a hashtag that is trending on Twitter in solidarity with the victims.
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President Francois Hollande said there was no doubt it had been a terrorist attack “of exceptional barbarity”. People had been “murdered in a cowardly manner”, Hollande told reporters at the scene. “We are threatened because we are a country of liberty,” he added, appealing for national unity.
French government officials are holding an emergency meeting, and President Hollande is due to give a televised address later.
After the attack, police warned French media outlets to be on alert and pay attention to security.
The country was already on the alert for Islamist militant attacks after several incidents just before Christmas.
While the French government denied the attacks were linked, it announced plans to further raise security in public spaces, including the deployment of about 300 soldiers.
Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 sparking riots in Muslim countries, says it has stepped up security in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack.