ORLY, France, March 18, (Agencies): Soldiers at Paris’ busy Orly Aiport shot and killed a man who wrestled one of their colleagues to the ground and tried to steal her rifle Saturday, officials said. Thousands of travelers were evacuated and at least 15 flights were diverted to the city’s other airport, Charles de Gaulle. No one else was hurt. Police did not immediately provide a motive or identify the attacker, though the Paris prosecutor’s office said he was 39 and had a record of robbery and drug offenses.
The office said he did not appear in a French government database of people considered potential threats to national security. Earlier Saturday, he fired birdshot at officers during a traffic stop in a Paris suburb, wounding one in the face. Then, Paris police said, he stole a woman’s car at gunpoint. It was found near Orly.
The prosecutor’s office said its antiterrorism division was handling the investigation and had taken the attacker’s father and brother into custody for questioning. The incident further rattled France, which remains under a state of emergency after attacks over the past two years that have killed 235 people.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the attacker, whom he did not identify, assaulted three Air Force soldiers who were patrolling the airport. He said the soldier who was attacked managed to hold on to her rifle and the two soldiers she was with opened fire to protect her and the public. A spokesman for the force later said she was shocked but not hurt. It happened around 8:30 a.m. Paris time (0730 GMT) in a public area of the airport’s South Terminal, before passengers must show tickets or go through security. Officials said about 3,000 people were evacuated from Orly, where passengers told of gunshots and panic.
Traffic was jammed near the airport and people wheeled suitcases down the road. People on 13 flights that landed around the time the drama was unfolding had to stay on planes for several hours. Augustin de Romanet, president of the ADP airport authority, said they were allowed off around noon, once a search of the airport was complete. A witness identified only as Dominque told BFM Television that the attacker held the soldier by the throat and held her arm and her weapon. “We saw it was a serious situation so we escaped,” he said. “We went down the stairs and right after we heard two gunshots.”
Taxi driver Youssef Mouhajra was picking up passengers at Orly when he heard shots, which he first thought were just a warning. “We have become accustomed to this kind of warning and to having the soldiers there,” he said. Then he said he saw people rushing out of the terminal. “I told (the passengers) let’s get out of here,” he said. As he drove away, he saw soldiers and police rushing toward the airport. The soldier who was attacked is part of the Sentinelle special force installed around France to protect sensitive sites after a string of deadly Islamic extremist attacks. The force includes 7,500 soldiers, half deployed in the Paris region and half in the provinces.
Meanwhile, the man’s father and brother were taken into police custody, a judicial source said. BFM TV, without giving a source, said the attacker had texted his father saying: “I’ve screwed up. I’ve shot a policeman.” President Francois Hollande said the case had been turned over to antiterrorism prosecutors and a number of operations were under way. The incident had shown the need for the “Sentinelle” security operation brought in after an outbreak of attacks by militants in 2015, he said. More than 230 people have died in France in the past two years at the hands of attackers allied to the militant Islamist group Islamic State, whose strongholds in Syria and Iraq are being bombed by an international coalition including France.
These include coordinated bombings and shootings in November 2015 in Paris when 130 people were killed and scores injured. Strengthening France’s security is at the heart of the campaign for presidential elections in April and May, where centrist Emmanuel Macron is predicted to hold off a strong challenge from far-right-winger Marine Le Pen, who advocates tough measures against illegal immigrants and radical Islamists. Saturday’s train of events began at Stains, near Le Bourget airport in northern Paris, where the man fled in a car after he shot and wounded a police officer at a road check. Soon afterwards, he was involved in a carjacking in another Paris suburb Vitry where he threatened customers of a bar, Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux told reporters. Soon afterward at Orly, he tried to seize a Famas assault rifle from a young woman air force member who was patrolling the airport as part of the army’s “Sentinelle” security operation. The man and the soldier fell to the ground after an “extremely violent attack”, an army spokesman said. In the ensuing struggle on the ground, other members of the patrol opened fire, killing him, an army spokesman said. One witness, who gave only his first name of Dominique, said he saw a man seize the woman soldier by the arm and take hold of her weapon. Her comrades tried to reason with her assailant