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Gunmen storm Paris satirical newspaper, killing at least 12

Security forces launched a massive manhunt Wednesday after masked gunmen opened fire inside the offices of a French satirical newspaper known for provocative content on Islam, killing the editor and at least 11 others before fleeing in waiting cars.

The attack -- the country's deadliest terrorist strike in decades -- appeared highly planned to coincide with a staff meeting at the weekly Charlie Hebdo and left its well-known editor and other staff members among the dead.

Global condemnation poured in as France raised its security alarm to the highest levels and mobilized search teams on foot, by air and in vehicles for the three assailants who stormed the newspaper -- where the Arabic cry of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) could be heard amid the gunfire, according to video posted by France's state-run broadcaster.

Across Paris, meanwhile, security patrols were stepped up at media outlets, transportation hubs and other key sites. The attack also is likely to raise calls for tougher crackdowns on suspected extremists in a country that has faced decades of internal tensions over its rising Muslim population.

The raid was "a terrorist attack without a doubt," said French President Francois Hollande.

"Journalists and police officers have been cowardly assassinated," Hollande said after visiting the scene. "France is in a state of shock after this terrorist attack."

Authorities had no immediate comment on possible suspects or motives.

But French media quoted witnesses as saying the assailants yelled, "We have avenged the prophet" in apparent reference to cartoons in the newspaper depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Only hours before the attack, the newspaper's Twitter account carried a cartoon entitled "Still No Attacks in France" showing Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi giving a New Year's greeting.

"Just wait," a fighter says in the drawing. "We have until the end of January to present our New Year's wishes."

The cover of the newspaper's latest edition also notes the release of a lightning-rod book, "Submission," a fictional account of France led by an Islamist party that imposes strict codes such as banning women from the workplace.

On the newspaper's Web site after the attack was a single message on a black background: "Je Suis Charlie" (I Am Charlie). It was also posted in other languages, including Arabic.

The attack appeared planned to target the newspaper's most prominent figures.

One of the newspaper's designers, Corinne Rey, said two hooded gunmen, speaking perfect French, forced her to type her passcode at the door. It was shortly before 11:30 a.m. -- the time of the newspaper's editorial meeting attended by key members of the staff.

"I had gone to pick up my daughter at day care. Two hooded gunmen arrived at the door of the building and brutally threatened us," Rey told the French newspaper L'Humanite.

Amateur footage broadcast on France 24 showed panicked employees of Charlie Hebdo scrambling onto the roof at the offices in the densely populated 11th arrondissement of Paris. Another video clip showed black-clad gunmen firing on a police officer on the sidewalk before escaping in a black car.

The assailants, according to French media accounts, later commandeered a vehicle at Porte de Pantin on the northeastern outskirts of Paris before fleeing to the suburbs.

"We heard a 'boom boom,'" said a waiter at the nearby Le Poulailler restaurant who asked to remain anonymous.

He described seeing at least two gunmen firing weapons. "We went outside in the alley and saw them shooting at the cops," he said. "At first we thought it was a movie, but then we quickly ran back inside for fear of getting shot when we realized what was actually happening."

Christophe Crepin, a police union spokesman, said the dead include 10 members of the newspaper staff, among them the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, who was widely known by his pen name, Charb.

Two police officers also were killed, including one assigned as the editor's bodyguard. The other, who arrived on the scene was shot in the head as he writhed wounded on the ground, Crepin said.

"We killed Charlie Hebdo," one of the assailants shouted, according to a video made from a nearby building and later broadcast on French television

"The murderers dared proclaim Charlie Hebdo is dead," said Secretary of State John F. Kerry in Washington. "But make no mistake, they are wrong. Today, and tomorrow, in Paris, in France and across the world, the freedom of expression this magazine represented is not able to be killed by this kind of act of terror."

The irreverent Charlie Hebdo first appeared in 1969, then folded in 1981 and resumed publication in 1992 with staffers reunited from its previous incarnation. The name purportedly derives in part from Charlie Brown of the "Peanuts" cartoon strip. Hebdo is short for hebdomadaire, which means weekly.

In his end-of-year address last week, Hollande raised concerns about "rising, worrying threats" of terrorism and growing intolerance in France, which is home to Europe's largest Muslim population.

Worry also has been mounting over the hundreds of French nationals who have gone to Syria and Iraq to join Islamist militants, including the Islamic State, a heavily armed offshoot of al-Qaeda that has taken over parts of both countries. In May, Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French national, opened fire in a Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four people.

Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, a spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor's office, said 12 people were killed, the Associated Press reported. At least 20 others were injured, including four listed in critical condition, police said.

There was no immediate claim on responsibility, but messages of praise appeared on Web sites and other online forums linked to Islamist militants, said the Washington-based SITE monitoring group, which tracks extremist posts.

The newspaper's irreverent style frequently pushed the envelope. It was already under regular police guard after being targeted in the past. It was firebombed in November 2011, a day after it published a caricature of the prophet Muhammad and ironically named him as its "editor in chief" for an upcoming issue.

The attack, however, did little to curb its appetite for Islamic satire. In 2012, the newspaper ignored calls for caution from high-ranking members of the French government and published more images of Muhammad. In one caricature, he was shown being pushed in a wheelchair by an Orthodox Jew in a reference to a hit French movie.

"This terrorist attack marks a black day in the history of France," said a statement by the media freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

The last major terrorist attacks in France took place in 1995, when a string of bombings over several months were blamed on an Algerian rebel group. A total of eight people were killed in the attacks.

But there has been repeated violence linked to tensions between France's secular traditions and its growing Muslim population, which claims it often faces discrimination.

Charlie Hebdo has lampooned a range of subjects, including popes, presidents, entertainers and others in addition to occasional pieces of serious journalism such as investigative stories. One cover depicted an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier; another showed Pope Benedict XVI dancing with a member of the Swiss Guard.

But its irreverent treatment of Islamic subjects has brought the harshest response.

"Muhammad isn't sacred to me," Charbonnier, the editor, told the AP in 2012. "I don't blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don't live under Quranic law."

In Washington, President Obama denounced the "horrific" shooting and said U.S. officials were ready to provide any assistance to help "bring these terrorists to justice."

British Prime Minister David Cameron called the attack "sickening," and German Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced it as "vile."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the attack and expressed solidarity with France.

"This was a barbaric act and an outrageous attack on press freedom," he said in a statement from NATO headquarters in Brussels.

At the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called it "a horrendous, unjustifiable and cold-blooded crime."

"It was also a direct assault on a cornerstone of democracy -- on the media and freedom of expression," he said.

[Source: By Virgile Demoustier, Anthony Faiola and Brian Murphy, The Washington Post, 07Jan15]

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