TRÈBES: A French policeman who offered himself as a hostage to help end what President Emmanuel Macron branded an “Islamist terrorist attack” died of his wounds Saturday, becoming the fourth victim of the shooting spree and supermarket siege.
Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, 45, was among a group of officers who rushed to the scene in the town of Trebes in southwest France on Friday after the attacker, who claimed allegiance to Isis, stormed a supermarket and fired at shoppers and staff.
Beltrame offered to take the place of a woman who was being held as the attacker’s final hostage, according to Interior Minister Gerard Collomb.
The officer was shot and stabbed before anti-terror police moved in to kill the attacker and end the siege.
Macron led tributes to Beltrame, saying he had “died a hero” and deserved “the respect and admiration of the whole nation”.
The national gendarmerie said its flags would fly at half-mast on Saturday in tribute to the slain officer, while a white rose hung on the door of his own base in Carcassonne.
With the death of the officer, the assailant, identified as 25-year-old Radouane Lakdim, killed a total of four people in Trebes and the nearby medieval town of Carcassonne, in France’s first major jihadist attack since October.
Isis claimed the attack was in response to its call to target Western enemies — as is customary when the assailant has pledged allegiance to the jihadists.
The shootings come as France remains on high alert following a string of deadly attacks that have killed more than 240 people since 2015.
Gunman was suspected radical
Lakdim, a Moroccan-born French national, had been monitored as a potential extremist, which will raise difficult questions for Macron’s government as to how he slipped through the net.
Top anti-terror prosecutor Francois Molins said Lakdim had convictions for carrying a banned weapon and for drug use and had spent a month in jail in 2016.
“He had been on a watchlist for his radicalisation and links to the Salafist movement,” Molins told reporters in Carcassonne on Friday, adding that Lakdim had been tracked for his online contacts with extremists.
His partner, who lived with him in Carcassonne, was detained on Friday, Molins said, while a legal source said a friend of Lakdim’s had also been taken into custody Saturday.
Lakdim started his rampage in Carcassonne at around 10.30 am (0930 GMT), hijacking a car and shooting the two people inside.
The passenger was killed, and the driver remains in a critical condition.
Lakdim then shot and wounded a policeman who was out jogging with colleagues before driving to nearby Trebes, bursting into a Super U supermarket and shooting a customer and an employee dead.
“The attacker entered the store shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and saying he was a soldier of the Islamic State, ready to die for Syria,” Molins said.
He further demanded the release of certain prisoners — notably, according to a security source, Saleh Abdeslam, prime suspect in the November 2015 Paris terror attacks.
“I was five metres away from him,” the store’s security guard said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He shot at me twice.” Luckily for the security guard, “he shot badly.”
Scars of previous attacks
The attack has rocked the normally sleepy town of Trebes, which went on lockdown Friday with heavily armed and masked police carrying out a massive operation in Lakdim’s neighbourhood.
In Paris, the Eiffel Tower dimmed its lights at midnight in a mark of respect for the victims and a minute’s silence was held at the Stade de France before a football match between France and Colombia.
Friday’s violence took place in a part of France still scarred by a killing spree in 2012 in the city of Toulouse and nearby Montauban where another jihadist, Mohamed Merah, shot dead seven people including three Jewish schoolchildren.
That assault marked the first of several big Islamist attacks in France since 2015, including the massacre at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the November 2015 attacks that killed 130 in Paris, and a summer 2016 truck attack during Bastille Day festivities in Nice.
The most recent assault came in October when a Tunisian man stabbed to death two women at Marseille’s railway station, shouting “Allahu Akbar”.
A state of emergency put in place just after the 2015 Paris attacks was lifted last October when Macron’s centrist government passed a new law boosting the powers of security forces.