Masked gunmen shouting 'Allahu akbar!' stormed the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo Wednesday, killing 12 people before escaping. It was France's deadliest terror attack in at least two decades.
With a manhunt on, French President Francois Hollande called the attack on the weekly, whose caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad have frequently drawn condemnation from Muslims, "a terrorist attack without a doubt". He said several other attacks have been thwarted in France "in recent weeks".
"Today France is confronted with a shock, a terrorist attack, there is no doubt about that... Against a magazine that had been threatened repeatedly and that was being protected."
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which the Paris prosecutor's office confirmed killed 12 people, including cartoonists.
Ten members of the Charlie Hebdo staff died in the attack, prosecutors said. Sources at the weekly said the dead included co-founder Jean "Cabu" Cabut, editor-in-chief Stephane "Charb" Charbonnier, and cartoonists Tignous and Wolinski.
France raised its security alert to the highest level and reinforced protective measures at houses of worship, stores, media offices and transportation. Top government officials held an emergency meeting. Schools closed their doors.
France's interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve promised to give the people of France the highest level of protection.
Just before noon, multiple masked men armed with automatic weapons attacked the newspaper's office in central Paris, nearby worker Benoit Bringer told the iTele network. The attackers went to the second floor and started firing indiscriminately in the newsroom, said Christophe DeLoire of Reporters Without Borders.
"This is the darkest day of the history of the French press," DeLoire said.
A combination of file photos of French cartoonists (from L) Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabu, Charb and Tignous, who were killed in the attack on the headquarters of satirist magazine Charlie Hebdo. ( AFP Photo)
Video images on the website of public broadcaster France Televisions showed two gunmen in black at a crossroads who appeared to fire down one of the streets. A cry of "Allahu akbar!" -- Arabic for "God is great"-- could be heard among the gunshots.
A source close to the investigation said the gunmen "armed with a Kalashnikov and a rocket-launcher" stormed the building in central Paris.
Luc Poignant of the SBP police union said the attackers left in a waiting car and later switched to another vehicle that had been stolen.
The gunmen fled towards the suburbs, according to police. "There is a possibility of other attacks and other sites are being secured," Police union official Rocco Contento said.
The last major attack in Paris was in the mid-1990s when the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) carried out a spate of attacks, including the bombing of a commuter train in 1995 which killed eight people and injured 150.
Charlie Hebdo and controversies
The satirical newspaper gained notoriety in February 2006 when it reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that had originally appeared in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, causing fury across the Muslim world.
Attackers shouted "we have avenged the prophet" after Wednesday's strike, according to witnesses cited by a police source.
In November 2011, the French satirical weekly's offices were fire-bombed when it published a cartoon of Mohammad under the title "Charia Hebdo".
Despite being taken to court under anti-racism laws, the weekly continued to publish controversial cartoons of the Muslim prophet.
In September 2012, Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of a naked Mohammad as violent protests were taking place in several countries over a low-budget film, titled "Innocence of Muslims", which was made in the United States and insulted the Prophet.
French schools, consulates and cultural centres in 20 Muslim countries were briefly closed along with embassies for fear of retaliatory attacks at the time.
World leaders condemn attack
After Wednesday's strike, world leaders including US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the attack, but supporters of the militant Islamic State group celebrated the slayings as well-deserved revenge against France.
The Islamic State group has repeatedly threatened to attack France.
Just minutes before the strike, Charlie Hebdo had tweeted a satirical cartoon of that extremist group's leader giving New Year's wishes.
Another cartoon, released in this week's issue and entitled "Still No Attacks in France", had a caricature of an extremist fighter saying "Just wait - we have until the end of January to present our New Year's wishes".
Elsewhere on the internet, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie was trending as people expressed support for weekly and for journalistic freedom.
Speaking on MSNBC, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said, "Everybody here at the White House are with the families of those who were killed or injured in this attack."
Condemning the shooting, US President Barack Obama said in a statement, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this terrorist attack and the people of France at this difficult time."
British Prime Minister David Cameron said, "While details are still unclear, I know that this house and this country stands united with the French people in our opposition to all forms of terrorism and we stand squarely for free speech and democracy."
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, "Condemnable & despicable attack in Paris. Our solidarity with people of France. My thoughts are with families of those who lost their lives."
The Arab League and Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's most prestigious centre of learning, both condemned the deadly attack.
"Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi strongly condemns the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris," the Arab League said in a statement.
Al-Azhar condemned the "criminal attack," saying that "Islam denounces any violence".
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists described the attack as a brazen assault on free expression. The scale of the violence is appalling," said CPJ deputy director Robert Mahoney. "Journalists must now stand together to send the message that such murderous attempts to silence us will not stand."
France last year reinforced its anti-terrorism laws and is already on alert after calls from Islamist militants to attack its citizens and interests in reprisal for French military strikes on Islamist strongholds in West Asia and Africa.
Wednesday's attack comes the same day of the release of a book by a celebrated French novelist depicting France's election of its first Muslim president. Hollande had been due to meet with the country's top religious officials later in the day.
Video: Gunmen attack Charlie Hebdo offices
Source: PREMIERES LIGNES / FRANCETV INFO