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Suspect held after car hits soldiers – Counter-terror probe launched

Officials and rescuers gather near vehicles after a car slammed into soldiers on patrol in Levallois-Perret, outside Paris on Aug 9, injuring six, two of them seriously, police in the French capital said. The vehicle took off after the incident, at about 8:00 am (06:00 GMT) in the northwestern suburb of Levallois-Perret. (AFP)

PARIS, Aug 9, (Agencies): Prime Minister Edouard Philippe confirmed that police had arrested the suspect behind an attack on French soldiers in a Paris suburb on Wednesday. “A suspect who was driving the car involved in the attack has been arrested on the highway between Paris and Boulogne-sur-Mer,” Philippe told lawmakers during parliament question time.

A Reuters journalist saw the BMW believed to have been used in the attack, riddled with bullet holes, on the A16 highway in northern France. A car rammed into a group of soldiers in a Parisian suburb on Wednesday, injuring six before speeding off and sparking a manhunt that a judicial source said ended with the suspect’s arrest on a motorway.

In an attack that authorities said bore the stamp of terrorism, the driver appeared to have lain in wait for the soldiers in a pedestrian zone near their base in Levallois-Perret. The affluent suburb on the northwestern edge of Paris is home to France’s domestic counter-terrorism agency. Several dozen troops from Operation Sentinel, launched in the wake of Islamist attacks in Paris in early 2015, are based there.

Patrol
The car accelerated into the troops, who were starting their patrol, when they were a few metres away, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told reporters outside the hospital where the three more seriously injured victims were being treated. “This was a deliberate act, not an accident,” Collomb said, adding that counter-terrorism investigators had taken up the case. A judicial source said the unarmed suspect was arrested on a motorway in northern France after.

A Reuters witness saw a bullet-riddled BMW at the scene. One policeman was injured by a stray bullet in the operation. The Levallois-Perret attack was the 15th on soldiers and police since they were deployed in large numbers nationwide after a series of Islamist militant attacks over the past two-anda- half years. Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said Wednesday’s attack was proof there remained an active threat and that the 7,000-strong Sentinel force “was more necessary than ever”.

Three soldiers had light injuries, Parly said, while three others were more gravely hurt but not as seriously as previously thought. Patrick Balkany, mayor of Levallois- Perret, called it a “disgusting” act of aggression that was “without any doubt” premeditated. Jean-Claude Veillant, resident of an apartment building directly above the scene, witnessed part of the attack. “I heard a loud noise, the sound of scraping metal. Shortly after, I saw one of the badly wounded lying in front of the Vigipirate (army patrol) vehicle and another one behind it receiving treatment,” he told reporters.

Attackers
Islamist militants or Islamist-inspired attackers have killed more than 230 people on French soil since January 2015, including one attack on Paris and another on the Riviera city of Nice. Operation Sentinel has put heavily armed combat troops in public view as they patrol key sites in military fatigues, at an annual cost running into hundreds of millions of euros.

While it did not prevent the November 2015 attack when gunmen killed 130 people in Parisian cafes and a concert hall, Sentinel troops have disarmed or killed would-be attackers on several occasions since – including a February incident where a machete-wielding assailant attacked soldiers outside the Louvre art museum, and another on Saturday at the Eiffel tower.

This year, assailants attacked soldiers at the Louvre museum site in Paris in February and at Orly airport in March. An assailant shot a policeman dead on the Champs Elysees avenue in the capital in April. Levallois-Perret is about 5 kms (3 miles) from city centre landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the Elysee Presidential Palace. Collomb said the forces had been attacked on six different occasions since 2015. The country has been under a state of emergency since major attacks in Paris in November 2015. The Paris prosecutors’ office said its anti-terrorism unit has launched a probe into “attempted killings… in relation to a terrorist undertaking”.

The Islamic State group (IS) has repeatedly targeted France because of its participation in the US-led international coalition fighting the jihadist group, with French jets carrying out air strikes in Syria. “Security forces are actively seeking the perpetrator who is on the run. The ongoing probe will determine his motives and the circumstances in which he acted,” Parly said in a statement earlier.

The incident came just four days after Sentinelle soldiers intervened to control an 18-year-old with a history of psychological problems at the Eiffel Tower where he brandished a knife and shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest). He told investigators he wanted to kill a soldier, sources close to the case told AFP. In February, a man armed with a machete attacked four soldiers on patrol at Paris’s Louvre Museum, while in April another extremist shot and killed a policeman on the Champs-Elysees, the French capital’s most famous boulevard.

Pledged
In June, a 40-year-old Algerian doctorate student who had pledged allegiance to IS attacked a policeman with a hammer outside Notre Dame cathedral. The wave of attacks in France has had a serious impact on tourism in the world’s top tourist destination, but the industry has begun to recover as incidents have become more widespread and generally less deadly.

The attack took place as the new centrist government was holding its last cabinet meeting before the summer holidays. President Emmanuel Macron publicly clashed with the head of the French armed forces last month over a proposed cut to the military budget this year. Macron slapped down General Pierre de Villiers, telling him “I’m your boss”, after he complained about the impact of the cuts at a time when the army was in action in the Middle East and West Africa as well as at home. De Villiers resigned a few days later.

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