PARIS (AFP) – Muslim places of worship in two French towns were fired upon overnight, leaving no casualties, prosecutors said on Thursday as French security forces desperately hunted two brothers suspected of gunning down 12 people in an attack on a satirical weekly, as a stunned and outraged France fell silent to mourn the victims.
With thousands of police scouring France after the bloodiest attack in the country for half a century, the two men – still armed – were apparently spotted at a petrol station in the northern Aisne region.
RAID, the anti-terrorist unit of the French police force, and the GIGN, a paramilitary special operations unit, deployed in Villers-Cotterets in the northern Aisne region “where a car was abandoned after being used by the two suspects, who were identified by a witness”, the source told AFP.
Cherif Kouachi, 32, a known person to police, and his brother Said, 34, were spotted by the manager of a petrol station in the town about an hour’s drive northeast of Paris, who after being robbed “formally identified” the two men.
They were described as “masked, with Kalashnikovs” and what appeared to be a rocket-launcher.
Three blank grenades were thrown at a mosque shortly after midnight in the city of Le Mans, west of Paris. A bullet hole was also found in a window of the mosque.
In the Port-la-Nouvelle district near Narbonne in southern France, several shots were fired in the direction of a Muslim prayer hall shortly after evening prayers. The hall was empty, the local prosecutor said.
An explosion at a kebab shop near a mosque in the eastern French town of Villefranche-sur-Saone on Thursday morning also left no casualties. Local prosecutors have described it as a “criminal act”.
France is on edge following the deadly assault.
Commentators have warned against amalgamating the Charlie Hebdo shooters with Muslims at large.
Bells pealed out across France at the stroke of midday, public transport stopped and people gathered outside the headquarters of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in the pouring rain, holding aloft banners reading “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).
Television pictures showed children at a Muslim school in the northern city of Lille holding up sheets of paper with “not in my name”.
Wednesday’s massacre triggered poignant and spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity around the world and more than 100,000 poured onto the streets of France.
Shocked people from Moscow to Washington rallied under the banner “I am Charlie” in support of press freedom.
Declaring Thursday a national day of mourning – only the fifth in the last 50 years – President Francois Hollande called the bloodbath “an act of exceptional barbarity”.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said seven people had been detained in the hunt for the brothers, and a judicial source added that the men and women held were close to the suspects.
Hamyd Mourad, an 18-year-old suspected of being an accomplice in the attack, handed himself in, with police sources saying he had seen his name “circulating on social media”.
Hollande ordered flags to fly at half-mast for three days in France and convened an emergency cabinet meeting.
“Nothing can divide us, nothing should separate us. Freedom will always be stronger than barbarity,” said the president, calling for “national unity”.
France’s main Islamic groups urged Muslims across the country to observe the minute of silence and for imams to condemn terrorism.