PARIS: US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in France Thursday “to share a big hug for Paris” hours after funerals were held for five of the 17 people killed in last week’s jihadist attacks.
Seeking to put behind a furore over the absence of a senior US official at a mass Paris rally in the wake of the shootings, Kerry touched down just as an anti-terrorism operation was underway in neighbouring Belgium, leaving two suspects dead.
Belgian investigators said earlier Thursday they were probing whether an arms dealer sold weapons used in the Paris attacks, but there was no immediate confirmation of any link between the investigation and the raid.
In France, Kerry will hold talks with President Francois Hollande on Friday and will make a speech — some of it in French — at city hall before giving way to US singer James Taylor of “You’ve Got a Friend” fame.
“My visit to France is basically to share a big hug for Paris and express the affection of the American people for France and for our friends there who have been through a terrible time,” he said in Bulgaria ahead of his Paris trip.
The visit comes after the White House was forced to admit it had made a mistake in not sending a higher-ranking representative than US ambassador Jane Hartley to the weekend march against extremism, which was attended by dozens of world leaders.
Meanwhile, poignant ceremonies took place in memory of some of those killed in last week’s attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and at a Jewish supermarket — the bloodiest in France in half a century.
The five buried included two of the weekly’s best-known cartoonists and Franck Brinsolaro, 49, a police officer who was killed at the satirical magazine’s editorial meeting, where he’d been standing guard.
Georges Wolinski, 80, and Bernard “Tignous” Verlhac, 57, who were gunned down by two Islamist brothers in the attack claimed by Al-Qaeda, were buried at private family funerals.
Thousands braved drizzle outside the town hall memorial service for Tignous, laying flowers under a huge portrait of the cartoonist as his wife Chloe paid tribute inside.
His cartoon-covered coffin was carried through an applauding crowd for final burial, as people held aloft banners reading “Thank you Charlie Hebdo” and “Our heroes.”
“It would really annoy you to see us here today with our long faces. We shouldn’t be sad, but proud to have known you,” said Coco, a fellow Charlie Hebdo cartoonist.
The attack on the magazine by the Kouachi brothers left 12 people dead, and another gunman called Amedy Coulibaly subsequently killed a policewoman and four Jews in a supermarket. All three gunmen were also killed.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced Thursday that a Malian hailed as a “hero” after helping hostages in the supermarket attack would be granted French citizenship.
Charlie Hebdo was quick to rise up in defiance to the attacks, printing a “survivors’ issue” that sold out Wednesday before more copies of an eventual print run of five million hit newsstands.
Long queues formed again on Thursday as copies were snapped up.
The latest front cover of Charlie Hebdo depicted Prophet Mohammed with a tear in his eye, under the headline “All is forgiven”.
He also holds a sign reading “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), the slogan that has become a global rallying cry for those expressing sympathy for the victims and support for freedom of speech.
So popular has it become that the creator of “Je suis Charlie” told AFP Thursday he was seeking to legally protect the phrase from commercialisation, to stop the nearly uncontrollable flood of people seeking to profit from it.
But Charlie Hebdo is not to everyone’s liking, and the cover of the new issue has sparked controversy and protests in some parts of the Muslim world, where many find the depiction of the prophet highly offensive.
Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, where at least one of the Kouachi brothers trained, released a video Wednesday claiming responsibility for the attack, saying it was “vengeance” for past cartoons of the prophet.
The Afghan Taliban on Thursday condemned Charlie Hebdo’s publication of further Mohammed cartoons and praised the gunmen.
Angry protests have been staged in countries from Pakistan and Turkey to the Philippines and Mauritania.
Pope Francis, speaking in Manila, stressed that “you cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people’s faith, you cannot mock it.”