PARIS: Two brothers suspected of slaughtering 12 people in an Islamist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo held one person hostage on Friday as police cornered the gunmen northeast of the capital.
The hostage drama unfolded at a printing business in the small town of Dammartin-en-Goele, only 12 kilometers (seven miles) from Paris’s main Charles de Gaulle airport, police sources said.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve confirmed that an operation was under way to “neutralize” the suspects as the massive manhunt appeared to be reaching a dramatic climax with helicopters buzzing overhead and a huge deployment of security forces.
“An operation is under way which is set to neutralize the perpetrators of the cowardly attack carried out two days ago,” Cazeneuve said in a televised statement.
Police had already exchanged fire with the pair in a high-speed car chase. Prosecutors told Agence France-Presse there had been “no casualties reported” in the immediate aftermath of the shoot-out.
Prior to the standoff, the suspects had hijacked a Peugeot 206 nearby from a woman who said she recognised them as the brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, accused of killing 12 people in Wednesday’s attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which repeatedly lampooned the Prophet Mohammed.
President Francois Hollande rushed to the interior meeting to be briefed on the situation as Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that France was at “war” with terrorism, but “not in a war against religion.”
“It will without doubt be necessary to take measures” to respond to the terrorist “threat,” he said.
Two Air France planes were forced to abort their landing at Paris’s main Charles-de-Gaulle airport and go round again “due to the presence of helicopters flying over the zone at low-altitude,” the airline said.
French authorities raised the security alert to the highest possible level in the region of Picardy, to the northeast of Paris, as forces tightened their noose on the brothers, Cherif Kouachi, 32 and Said, 34.
Around 24 hours into the manhunt, the brothers were identified after holding up a petrol station 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Paris.
Helicopters buzzed overhead during the night and paramilitary forces were preparing to step up their house-to-house searches.
As heavily armed crack units swarmed through the normally tranquil countryside villages, residents voiced their nervousness.
“I don’t understand: the police are dressed like Robocops in the streets, but they let us move about freely. What if we came face-to-face with them, what do we do?” asked one woman, who gave her name as Carole.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that a total of 88,000 security forces were mobiliZed across the country and that an international meeting on terrorism would take place in Paris on Sunday.
Nine people had already been detained as part of the operation, Cazeneuve said.