by Mathieu Gorse and Katy Lee in Paris
Agence France Presse
President Emmanuel Macron led tributes Saturday to a French policeman who died after offering himself as a hostage to help end an Islamist attack, becoming the fourth victim of the shooting spree and supermarket siege.
Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, 45, was among a group of officers who rushed to the scene in the southwestern town of Trebes on Friday after an attacker claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group holed up in a supermarket following a shooting spree in nearby Carcassonne.
Beltrame offered to take the place of a woman being held as a final hostage by 25-year-old Radouane Lakdim, who had already shot dead the supermarket’s butcher and a customer.
Lakdim, a petty criminal who was on a watchlist over fears he had been radicalized, shot and stabbed the policeman before anti-terror officers moved in to kill him and end the siege.
Macron said the police officer, who hoped to be able to negotiate with the attacker once shoppers were taken to safety, had “died a hero.”
He deserves “the respect and admiration of the whole nation,” the president said.
Lakdim’s partner and a 17-year-old friend were in custody as investigators sought to understand events leading to the attack.
Investigators found notes at his home which refer to IS, a legal source said, including a hand-written letter in which he claimed allegiance to the jihadist group.
The shootings come as France remains on high alert following a string of deadly attacks that have killed more than 240 people since 2015.
Gunman was suspected radical
Lakdim, a Moroccan-born French national, fit a familiar profile as a petty criminal who had turned to extremism.
A small-time drug-dealer, his rap sheet included convictions for carrying a banned weapon and for drug use. He spent a month in jail in 2016.
“He had been on a watchlist for his radicalization and links to the Salafist movement,” said top anti-terror prosecutor Francois Molins.
Lakdim started Friday’s rampage in Carcassonne, hijacking a car and shooting the two people inside. The passenger was killed, and the driver remains in a critical condition.
Lakdim then shot and wounded a policeman who was out jogging with colleagues before driving to nearby Trebes and bursting into the Super U supermarket, “shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greatest) and saying he was a soldier of the Islamic State, ready to die for Syria”, Molins said.
He further demanded the release of certain prisoners — notably, according to a security source, Salah Abdeslam, prime suspect in the November 2015 Paris terror attacks.
‘We felt powerless’
IS claimed the attack was in response to its call to target Western enemies — as is customary when the assailant has pledged allegiance to the jihadists.
Experts said the attack showed the evolving nature of the IS threat, seeking to inspire lone-wolf attacks in its name as its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq crumbles.
“The persistence of the homegrown threat has largely escaped public debate in comparison to concern over jihadists coming home after fighting in Syria and Iraq,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, Middle Eastern Studies professor at Sciences Po university.
The attack has rocked Trebes, a sleepy town of 5,000 located on the picturesque Canal du Midi.
“We thought this only happened in big towns,” said a 52-year-old restaurant-owner who gave her name as Khadija.
Supermarket boss Samia Menassi, whose store remains closed and surrounded by police tape, was still in shock Saturday as she recalled hearing the first gunshots.
“I said to the girls, ‘Call the police, there’s a terrorist in the shop’,” she told AFP.
“We felt powerless because we still had colleagues in there.”
Of around 50 people in the store at the time, most were able to get out through an emergency exit, some after sheltering in a meat refrigerator.
France has suffered a series of major Islamist attacks over the past three years, including the massacre at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the November 2015 attacks that killed 130 in Paris, and the 2016 Bastille Day truck attack in Nice.
The most recent assault came in October when a Tunisian man stabbed to death two women at Marseille’s railway station.
A state of emergency put in place just after the 2015 Paris attacks was lifted in October when Macron’s centrist government passed a new law boosting the powers of security forces.
Thousands of French troops remain on the streets under an anti-terror operation known as Sentinelle, patrolling transport hubs, tourist hotspots and other sensitive sites.