PARIS: Heavily armed gunmen massacred 12 people on Wednesday after bursting into the Paris offices of a satirical weekly that had long outraged Muslims with controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.
The late-morning raid on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in a quiet neighbourhood was the bloodiest attack in France for at least four decades.
Victims included three cartoonists and the chief editor who had been holding a morning meeting when the assailants armed with Kalashnikovs opened fire, officials said.
Police said witnesses heard the attackers shout “we have avenged the prophet” and “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest).
President Francois Hollande immediately rushed to the scene of what he called “an act of exceptional barbarism.”
Amateur video shot after the bloodbath showed two men masked and dressed head-to-toe in black military style outfits leaving the building, then shooting a wounded policeman in cold blood as he lay on the pavement.
The gunmen, who appear to be calm, then returned to a black Citroen and drove off.
Large numbers of police and ambulances rushed to the scene, where shocked residents spilled into the streets. Reporters saw bullet-riddled windows and people being carried out on stretchers.
The gunmen remained at large by early evening and there was no claim of responsibility. The interior minister said three assailants took part.
Two police were confirmed among the dead and four people were critically injured.
The capital was immediately placed under the highest alert status.
The attack took place at a time of heightened fears in France and other European capitals over fallout from the wars in Iraq and Syria, where hundreds of European citizens have gone to fight alongside the radical Islamic State group.
In a sign of such tensions, a media group’s office in Madrid was evacuated later in the day after a suspicious package was sent there.
One man, who witnessed the attack, described a scene like “in a movie.”
“I saw them leaving and shooting. They were wearing masks. These guys were serious,” said the man who declined to give his name. “At first I thought it was special forces chasing drug traffickers or something.”
An employee at a nearby daycare centre said he was walking with children when panic erupted.
“People leaned out of the window and yelled at me to get off the pavement,” he said.
“We got out of there very fast,” said Jean-Paul Chevalier, 56. “People were panicking. I heard shooting.”
Hollande called for “national unity”, adding that “several terrorist attacks had been foiled in recent weeks”.
US President Barack Obama condemned the attack and pledged assistance, while British Prime Minister David Cameron called it “sickening.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the attack was “despicable” and Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the violence along with the Arab League.
Wednesday’s shooting is one of the worst attacks in France in decades.
In 1995, a bomb in a commuter train blamed on Algerian extremists exploded at the Saint Michel metro station in Paris, killing eight and wounding 119.
Al-Qaeda inspired gunman Mohamed Merah killed seven people in and around the southern city of Toulouse in 2012. His victims included three French soldiers and four Jews — three children and a rabbi.
The satirical newspaper attacked Wednesday gained notoriety in February 2006 when it reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that had originally appeared in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, causing fury across the Muslim world.
Its offices were fire-bombed in November 2011 when it published a cartoon of Mohammed under the title “Sharia Hebdo”.
Despite being taken to court under anti-racism laws, the weekly continued to publish controversial cartoons of the Muslim prophet.
In September 2012, Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of a naked Mohammed as violent protests were taking place in several countries over a low-budget film, titled “Innocence of Muslims”, which was made in the United States and insulted the prophet.
Editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb and who had lived under police protection after receiving death threats, was among those killed in Wednesday’s attack.
Others left dead included the cartoonists known as Cabu, Tignous and Wolinski.
The paper’s last tweet on Wednesday morning before the attack included a cartoon of Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Happy New Year wishes.
This week’s front page featured controversial French author Michel Houellebecq, whose latest book “Soumission”, or “Submission,” which imagines a France in the near future that is ruled by an Islamic government, came out Wednesday.
The book has widely been touted as tapping into growing unease among non-Muslim French about immigration and the rise of Islamic influence in society.