‘France is at war’: Hollande wants US, Russia to unite against IS

  • Agencies, Paris
  • Updated: Nov 17, 2015 13:53 IST
French President Francois Hollande, center, flanked by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, right, and French education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, center left, stands among students during a minute of silence in the courtyard of the Sorbonne University in Paris. (AP)

French President Francois Hollande called on the United States and Russia to join forces to destroy Islamic State in the wake of Friday’s attacks across Paris that killed at least 129 people, and announced a wave of measures to combat terror in France.

In a sombre speech to both houses of parliament after the coordinated suicide bombings and shootings that sent shock waves across the world, Hollande said he would increase funds for national security, strengthen anti-terror laws and boost border controls.

“France is at war. But we’re not engaged in a war of civilisations, because these assassins do not represent any. We are in a war against jihadist terrorism which is threatening the whole world,” he told a packed chamber at the gilded Versailles Palace near Paris on Monday.

Parliamentarians gave Hollande a standing ovation before singing the national anthem in a signal of political unity following the worst atrocity in France since World War II.

“The faces of the dead people, of the wounded, of the families don’t leave my mind,” Hollande declared after France and many allies observed a minute of silence in honour of the 129 killed and 350 wounded when three teams of IS attackers targeted the national stadium, a rock concert and four nightspots on Friday with assault gun fire and suicide bombs.

Read: Suspected Paris attacks mastermind featured in IS magazine

“In my determination to combat terrorism, I want France to remain itself. The barbarians who attack France would like to disfigure it. They will not make it change,” Hollande declared. “They must never be able to spoil France’s soul.”

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were in retaliation for French airstrikes in Iraq and Syria over the past year.

Hollande said French forces would intensify its assaults and said he would meet US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming days to urge them to pool their resources.

“...We must combine our forces to achieve a result that is already too late in coming,” Hollande said.

French soldiers patrol near Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. (AP)

A US-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State for more than a year. Russia joined the conflict in September, but US officials say it has mainly hit foreign-backed fighters battling its ally President Bashar al-Assad, not Islamic State.

Hollande said he would present a bill on Wednesday seeking to extend the prevailing state of emergency - granting the police and military greater powers of search and arrest, and local governments the right to suspend demonstrations and impose curfews - for another three months.

Speaking in Turkey at the same time as Hollande, Obama called Friday’s attacks a “terrible and sickening setback”, but insisted the US-led coalition was making progress.

Watch | Obama reaffirms terror strategy at G-20 summit

“Even as we grieve with our French friends... we can’t lose sight that there has been progress being made,” Obama said at a Group of 20 summit.

Much of France came to a standstill at midday for a minute’s silence to remember the dead. Metro trains stopped, pedestrians paused on pavements and office workers stood at their desks.

French police stand guard as people gather to look at the Eiffel Tower that is lit with the blue, white and red colours of the French flag in Paris. (REUTERS)

Investigators have identified a Belgian national living in Syria as the possible mastermind behind the attacks, which targeted bars, restaurants, a concert hall and soccer stadium, with Brussels seen as the springboard.

“Friday’s act of war was decided upon and planned in Syria, prepared and organised in Belgium and carried out on our territory with the complicit of French citizens,” Hollande said.

Prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants -- four Frenchmen and a foreigner fingerprinted in Greece last month. His role in the carnage has fuelled speculation that Islamic State took advantage of a recent wave of refugees fleeing Syria to slip militants into Europe.

Police believe one attacker is on the run, and suspect at least four people helped organise the mayhem.

“We know that more attacks are being prepared, not just against France but also against other European countries,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told RTL radio. “We are going to live with this terrorist threat for a long time.”

Islamic State warned in a video on Monday that any country hitting it would suffer the same fate as Paris, promising specifically to target Washington.

Read: After Paris attacks, IS threatens Washington in new video

French warplanes bombed Islamic State training camps and a suspected arms depot in its Syrian stronghold Raqqa late on Sunday -- its biggest such strike since the US-led mission launched in 2014.

Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters police had arrested nearly two dozen people and seized arms, including a rocket launcher and automatic weapons, in 168 raids overnight.

“Let this be clear to everyone, this is just the beginning, these actions are going to continue,” Cazeneuve said.

Hollande said he would create 5,000 jobs in the police and security forces, and boost staff in the prison service by 2,500. He also said there would be no cuts to defence spending. He acknowledged this would break EU budget rules, but said that national security was more important.

People light candles, as they form the French flag, in remembrance of the victims of the Paris attacks at Sant Jaume square in Barcelona. (REUTERS)

Schools, museums reopen

A source close to the investigation said Belgian national Abdelhamid Abaaoud, currently in Syria, was suspected of having ordered the Paris operation. “He appears to be the brains behind several planned attacks in Europe,” the source said.

RTL Radio said Abaaoud was a 27-year-old from Molenbeek. He was also reported by media to have been involved in a series of planned attacks in Belgium which were foiled by the police last January.

Police in Brussels have detained two suspects and are hunting Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old Frenchman based in Belgium. One of his brothers died in the Paris assault, while a third brother was arrested at the weekend but later released.

Schools, museums and the Eiffel Tower re-opened in Paris on Monday after a 48-hour shutdown, but some popular tourist sites, including Disneyland, remained closed.

French tourism-related stocks fell sharply on fears visitors might shun Paris, one of the most visited cities in the world, but the country’s blue-chip CAC 40 index was steady, with no long-term economic impact seen.

Police have named two French attackers -- Ismael Omar Mostefai, 29, from Chartres, southwest of Paris, and Samy Amimour, 28, from the Paris suburb of Drancy. A source close to the investigation named two other French assailants as Bilal Hadfi and Ibrahim Abdeslam.

France now believes Mostefai was in Syria from 2013-2014 and his radicalisation underlined the trouble France faces trying to capture an elusive enemy that grew up in its own cities.

“He was a normal man,” said Christophe, his neighbour in Chartres. “Nothing made you think he would turn violent.”

Latest official figures estimate that 520 French nationals are in the Syrian and Iraqi war zones, including 116 women. Some 137 have died in the fighting, 250 have returned home and around 700 have plans to travel to join the jihadist factions.

The man stopped in Greece in October was carrying a Syrian passport in the name of Ahmad Al Mohammad. Police said they were still checking to see if the document was authentic, but said the dead man’s fingerprints matched those on record in Greece.

Greek officials said the passport holder had crossed from Turkey to the Greek islands last month and then registered for asylum in Serbia before heading north, following a route taken by hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers this year.

French soldiers cross the Champs Elysees avenue passing the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. (AP)

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