PARIS (AP) – For the second time in three weeks, terror has struck France, this time with the horrific beheading of a history teacher on a street in the Paris suburbs. The suspected attacker was shot dead by police.
French President Emmanuel Macron denounced what he called an “Islamist terrorist attack” and urged the nation to unite against extremism. The teacher had discussed the cartoons of the prophet of Islam Muhammad with his class, authorities said.
The French anti-terrorism prosecutor has opened an investigation for suspected terrorist murder. Four people, including a minor, were arrested hours later, the office of anti-terrorist prosecutor Jean-François Ricard said without giving details. Police typically go out to find family and friends of potential suspects in terrorism cases.
Macron visited the school where the teacher worked in the town of Conflans-Saint-Honorine and met the staff after the murder. An Associated Press reporter saw three ambulances at the scene, heavily armed police surrounding the area and police vans lining the leafy streets nearby.
“One of our compatriots was murdered today because he taught… freedom of speech, the freedom to believe or not to believe,” Macron said.
He said the attack shouldn’t divide France because that’s what the extremists want. “We must all be together as citizens,” he said.
The incident came as the Macron government is working on a bill aimed at combating radical Islamists who, according to the authorities, are creating a parallel society outside the values of the French Republic. France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe with up to 5 million members, and Islam is the country’s second largest religion.
A police official said the suspect, armed with a knife and an airsoft gun – which shoots plastic pellets – was shot dead about 600 meters (yards) from where the teacher was killed after failing to respond to orders to give up, and acted threateningly.
The teacher had received threats after he opened a discussion “for a debate” on the cartoons about 10 days ago, the police official told The Associated Press. A student’s parent had lodged a complaint against the teacher, another police official said, adding that the alleged killer did not have children in school.
An ID card was found at the scene, but police were verifying the identity, the police official said. French media reported that the suspect was an 18-year-old Chechen, born in Moscow. This information could not be confirmed immediately.
France has seen occasional violence involving its Chechen community in recent months, in the Dijon region, in the Mediterranean city of Nice and in the city of Saint-Dizier, in the west, which is said to be linked to local criminal activities.
It was not known what connection, if any, the abuser might have with the teacher or if he had any accomplices. Police were searching the homes and the man’s family and potential friends, the police official said.
The two officials could not be named as they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigations.
“We didn’t see it coming,” said Remi Tell, a resident of Conflans, who was a child at Bois D’Aulne college, on CNews. He described the city as peaceful.
It was the second terrorism-related incident since the opening of an ongoing trial for the January 2015 press room massacre at satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had published caricatures of the Prophet of Islam.
At the start of the trial, the newspaper reposted cartoons of the prophet to emphasize the right to free speech. Soon a young Pakistani man was arrested after stabbing two people with a meat cleaver outside the newspaper’s former offices. They did not suffer threatening injuries. The 18-year-old told police he was shocked by the publication of the cartoons.
In a video recently posted to social media, a man describing himself as a father at school said the teacher who was killed recently showed an offensive image of a man and told students he was “The prophet of Muslims”. Before showing the footage, the teacher asked the Muslim children to leave the room because he was planning to show something shocking, the man said.
“What message did he want to send to these children? … Why does a history teacher behave like this in front of 13-year-olds? The man asked. He called on other angry parents to contact him and relay the message.
Michel Euler in Conflans-Saint-Honorine, Angela Charlton in Paris and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny in Lyon contributed to this report.