PARIS (AP) – A suspect shot dead by police after the horrific beheading of a history teacher in an attack near Paris was an 18-year-old Chechen, officials said on Saturday.
France’s counterterrorism prosecution said authorities investigating Samuel Paty’s gruesome murder in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine on Friday also arrested nine suspects, including the attacker’s grandfather, parents and 17-year-old brother.
Paty had discussed the cartoons of the Prophet of Islam Muhammad with his class, which led to threats and a complaint from a relative, police officials said. Islam forbids images of the prophet, considering that they lead to idolatry. The officials could not be named because they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigations.
The French anti-terrorism prosecutor has opened an investigation for murder with an alleged terrorist motive, the prosecution said.
French leaders offered messages of sadness but also of hope in the hours following the tragedy.
“We are going to get back together, thanks to our spirit of solidarity,” said Laurent Brosse, mayor of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, at a press conference on Saturday.
“We are all affected, all affected by this horrific assassination,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said in a video message.
A police official said the armed suspect in Friday’s attack was shot dead about 600 yards from where Paty died. He was armed with a knife and an airsoft gun – which shoots plastic pellets – and police opened fire after failing to respond to orders to give up and acted threateningly. The official could not be named either due to ongoing investigations.
French President Emmanuel Macron quickly arrived at school on Friday evening to denounce what he called an “Islamist terrorist attack”. He urged the nation to unite against extremism.
“One of our compatriots was murdered today because he taught… freedom of speech, the freedom to believe or not to believe,” Macron said.
The Elysee presidential palace announced on Saturday that there would be a national ceremony at a later date in honor of Paty, of which few details have so far emerged.
In a video posted recently on Twitter, a man describing himself as the father of a student claimed that Paty showed the image of a naked man and told the students that he was the ‘prophet of Muslims’ .
Before showing the footage, the teacher asked the Muslim children to raise their hands and leave the room as he was planning to show something shocking, the man said. The AP has not been able to independently confirm these claims.
“What message did he want to send to these children? What is this hatred? The man asked.
Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim Russian republic in the North Caucasus. Two wars in the 1990s sparked a wave of emigration, with many Chechens heading to Western Europe. France has offered asylum to many Chechens since the Russian military waged war against Islamist separatists in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s.
France has experienced occasional violence involving its Chechen community in recent months, allegedly linked to local criminal activity and settling of scores.
This is the second time in three weeks that terror has struck France linked to the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Last month, a young Pakistani man was arrested after attacking two people with a meat cleaver outside the former offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
The weekly was the target of a deadly attack in the newsroom in 2015, and it reposted the prophet’s cartoons this month to highlight the right to freedom of information as a trial broke. open linked to this attack.
Friday’s terror attack came as Macron’s government is working on a bill to fight Islamic radicals, who authorities say are creating a parallel society outside the values of the French Republic.
Elaine Ganley contributed to this report