PARIS: French elite forces killed the brothers behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre and a jihadist ally Friday in a dramatic finale to three blood-soaked days that left 17 people dead and shook the nation to its core.
Explosions rang out at sunset at two hostage sites around Paris as heavily armed police moved in for a fiery final showdown with gunmen who had kept France gripped with fear since 12 people were slaughtered Wednesday in the offices of the satirical magazine.
On Friday the heavily-armed massacre suspects were cornered in a tiny town northeast of Paris while a third man took terrified shoppers hostage in a Jewish supermarket, where four died and seven were hurt including three police officers.
As the drama reached its climax, chilling links emerged showing the brothers, identified as Cherif and Said Kouachi, and supermarket gunman Amedy Coulibaly were close allies and had worked together.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Coulibaly had “threatened to kill all the hostages” if police moved in on the Kouachi brothers, and he had said the supermarket was booby-trapped.
The three all had a radical past and were known to French intelligence.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the carnage they left in their wake showed there had been “clear failings” in intelligence.
Cherif told French TV he was acting on behalf of the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula while Coulibaly said he was a member of the Islamic State group.
Coulibaly’s girlfriend Hayat Boumeddiene, who was wanted by police in connection to the killing Thursday of a policewoman, was still on the loose.
Outside the kosher supermarket, an AFP reporter saw at least one body lying at the scene, where the sliding glass door of the shop was completely shattered.
“It’s war!” shouted a mother as she pulled her daughter away.
As France’s bloodiest week in decades drew to a close, with 17 dead and 20 injured, President Francois Hollande warned the threats facing France “weren’t over.”
He described the attack on the supermarket as an “appalling anti-Semitic act” and said: “These fanatics have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.”
Hollande said he would attend a march of national unity in Paris on Sunday that is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people as well as the leaders of countries including Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain.
Some of France’s best-loved cartoonists, as well as two police officers, were killed at Charlie Hebdo, a magazine which infuriated Muslims by repeatedly published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
On Friday, the mourning capital shone the words “Paris est Charlie” (Paris is Charlie) on the iconic Arc de Triomphe monument, playing on the phrase “I am Charlie” (Je Suis Charlie) that has taken centre stage at tribute rallies around the globe and featured heavily on social media.
Friday’s drama first focused on the manhunt for the Kouachi brothers who were quickly cornered in a printing business in Dammartin-en-Goele outside Paris after a firefight with police which prosecutor Francois Molins said left Said with a minor neck wound.
The brothers took the store manager hostage, later releasing him after he helped Said with his wound, while a second man hid upstairs, said Molins.
The men had a hefty cache of arms including Molotov cocktails and a loaded rocket-launcher.
One witness described coming face-to-face at the printer’s with one of the suspects, dressed in black, wearing a bullet-proof vest and carrying what looked like a Kalashnikov.
The salesman told France Info radio that one of the brothers said: “‘Leave, we don’t kill civilians anyhow’.”
As French elite forces moved into place around the building, with snipers deployed on roofs and helicopters buzzing overhead, fresh terror descended on eastern Paris with a hail of gunfire around lunchtime.
There, Coulibaly stormed a Jewish supermarket hours before the Sabbath, killing four shoppers and taking others hostage.
Police swarmed to the Vincennes area, ordering terrified residents to stay indoors.
As the sun set shortly after 5:00pm local time, the two Islamist Charlie Hebdo gunmen staged a desperate escape bid, charging out of the building with guns blazing before being cut down in their tracks.
Shortly afterwards security forces moved in on the supermarket, where Coulibaly had just knelt to do his evening prayer when the special forces struck.
BFMTV revealed police were able to exploit a lapse in his defenses as he had not hung up his phone after speaking to one of their reporters.
Coulibaly told the rolling news station he was a member of the Islamic State extremist group.
A security source told AFP he had also called friends from the scene urging them to stage further attacks.
The spectacular attacks came as it emerged the Kouachi brothers had been on a US terror watch list “for years”.
And as fears spread in the wake of the attack, the head of Britain’s domestic spy agency MI5 warned that Islamist militants were planning other “mass casualty attacks against the West” and that intelligence services may be powerless to stop them.
As the world rallied to France’s side, US President Barack Obama was the latest to sign a book of condolence in Washington with the message “Vive la France!”
And as a politically divided and crisis-hit France sought to pull together in the wake of the tragedy, the head of the country’s Muslim community — the largest in Europe — urged imams to condemn terrorism at Friday prayers.
Meanwhile, questions mounted as to how three men well-known for jihadist views and flagged in a US database as terror suspects could have slipped through the net.
Cherif Kouachi, 32, was a known jihadist who was convicted in 2008 for involvement in a network sending fighters to Iraq.
His brother Said, 34, was known to have travelled to Yemen in 2011, where he received weapons training from AQAP.
Coulibaly, 32 — who met Kouachi in prison — was sentenced to five years in prison in 2013 for his role in a failed bid to break an Algerian Islamist, Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, out of jail.
The Islamic State group’s radio praised them as “heroes” and Somalia’s Shebab militants, Al-Qaeda’s main affiliate in Africa, hailed their “heroic” act.
While the immediate danger appeared to have cleared, a chilling new warning came from AQAP whose top sharia official Harith al-Nadhari threatened France with fresh attacks, the SITE monitoring group said.