At least 140 killed in Paris attacks


BREAKING: BFM TV SAYS ABOUT 100 DEAD IN BATACLAN PARIS CONCERT HALL

Gunmen and bombers attacked busy restaurants, bars and a concert hall at locations around Paris on Friday, killing dozens of people in what a shaken President Francois Hollande described as an unprecedented terrorist attack.

Police sources said at least 40 people were killed and 60 wounded in up to five attacks in the Paris region. French media reported higher unofficial death tolls.

The apparently coordinated gun and bomb assault came as the country, a founder member of the U.S.-led coalition waging air strikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, was on high alert for terrorist attacks ahead of a global climate conference due to open later this month.

Hollande, who was attending an international soccer match with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier when several explosions took place outside the national stadium, declared a state of emergency in the Paris region and announced the closure of France's borders to stop perpetrators escaping.

“This is a horror,” the visibly shaken president said in a midnight television address to the nation before chairing an emergency cabinet meeting.

All emergency services were mobilized, police leave was canceled and hospitals recalled staff to cope with the casualties.

Hollande said police were launching an assault at one of the attack sites as he spoke. A Reuters witness heard five explosions outside the Batalla music hall, where up to 60 people were being held hostage.

A second Reuters reporter later said police had completed an operation at the building. BMG TV said two gunmen had been killed.

Earlier, witnesses said an elite anti-terror unit had taken up positions outside the popular concert venue, which was attacked by two or three gunmen, who were reported to have shouted slogans condemning France's role in Syria.

“We know where these attacks come from,” Hollande said, without naming any individual group. “There are indeed good reasons to be afraid.”

HIGH ALERT

France has been on high alert ever since Islamist gunmen attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket in Paris in January, killing 18 people.

U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel led a global chorus of solidarity with France and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the “despicable attacks” and demanded the release of the hostages.

Julien Pierce, a journalist from Europe 1 radio, was inside the concert hall when the shooting began. In an eyewitness report posted on the station's website, Pierce said several very young individuals, who were not wearing masks, entered the hall while the concert was under way armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and started “blindly shooting at the crowd”.

“There were bodies everywhere,” he said.

French media reported five more or less simultaneous attacks in mid-evening in central Paris and outside the Stade de France stadium in the suburb of Saint-Denis, north of the city center.

There was no immediate verifiable claim of responsibility but supporters of the Islamic State militant group which controls swathes of Iraq and Syria said in Twitter messages that the group carried them out.

“The State of the caliphate hit the house of the cross,” one tweet said.

Three explosions were heard near the Stade de France, where the France-Germany friendly soccer match was being played. A witness said one of the detonations blew people into the air outside a McDonald's restaurant outside the stadium.

The match continued until the end but panic broke out in the crowd as rumors of the attack spread, and spectators were held in the stadium and assembled spontaneously on the pitch.

TF1 television said up to 35 people were dead near the soccer stadium, including two suspected suicide bombers.

Police helicopters circled the stadium as Hollande was rushed back to the interior ministry to deal with the situation.

In central Paris, shooting erupted in mid-evening outside a Cambodian restaurant in the capital's 10th district. There were unconfirmed reports of other shootings in Rue de Charonne in the 11th district and at the central Les Halles shopping and cinema complex.

“There are lots of people here. I don’t know what’s happening, a sobbing witness who gave her name only as Anna told BFM TV outside the Batalla hall. “It’s horrible. There’s a body over there. It’s horrible.”

The attacks came within days of attacks claimed by Islamic State militants on a Shi'ite Muslim district of southern Beirut in Lebanon, and a Russian tourist aircraft which crashed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

Earlier on Friday, the United States and Britain said they had launched an attack in the Syrian town of Raqqa on a British Islamic State militant known as “Jihadi John” but it was not certain whether he had been killed.

VIDEO: Explosion heard during soccer match.

France train gunman identified as Islamist militant


Fingerprint evidence shows that the gunman overpowered by passengers on a train in France is a Morrocan known to European authorities as a suspected Islamist militant, according to a source familiar with the case.

Two people were wounded in the struggle to subdue the Kalashnikov-toting attacker aboard the high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday. Three young Americans, one of whom suffered knife wounds, were among the passengers who stopped the gunman.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters the gunman appeared to be a 26-year-old Moroccan who had been “identified by the Spanish authorities to French intelligence services in February 2014 because of his connections to the radical Islamist movement.”

Cazeneuve did not give a name, but the source named him as Ayoub el Khazzani and said he was believed to have flown from Berlin to Istanbul on May 10 this year. Turkey is a preferred flight destination for would-be jihadists heading for Syria.

According to a Spanish counter-terrorism source, Spanish authorities had a suspect they identified as Khazzani under surveillance before he left Spain for France in 2014, traveled to Syria, and then came back to France.

In Spain, he lived in Madrid between 2007 and 2010 before moving to the southern port of Algeciras. He was arrested in Spain at least once for a drug-related offence, the Spanish counter-terrorism source said.

Cazeneuve said he had also lived in Belgium and that inquiries “should establish precisely the activities and travels of this terrorist”.

French newspaper Le Voix du Nord said the suspect may have had connections to a group involved in a suspected Islamist shooting in Belgium in January. The Belgian government confirmed an inquiry was under way but would not comment further.

French authorities have been on high alert since January, when 17 people were killed in shootings by Islamist militants in and around Paris.

KALASHNIKOV, PISTOL, AND BOX CUTTER 

The train attacker was armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and an automatic pistol, both with accompanying ammunition clips. He also had a box cutter knife. Cazeneuve said the struggle started when a Frenchman on his way to the toilet tried to stop the man entering a carriage.

The wounded American, Spencer Stone, an airman from the U.S. air base in Lajes, Azores, was treated on Saturday at a specialist hospital for hand injuries in the northern French city of Lille.

Among the other passengers who helped stop the attacker were Stone's friends: National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and another American, student Anthony Sadler. Skarlatos had returned last month from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and the three were on holiday together in Europe.

Cazeneuve said the other wounded person was of Franco-American nationality and hit by a bullet while seated. Hospital authorities said the person had a chest wound and was in a serious but stable condition.

French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade was also slightly hurt, and had stitches in his hand.

“We were stuck in the wrong place with the right people,” Anglade was quoted as saying on BFMTV. “It's miraculous.”

President Barack Obama hailed the passengers as heroes: “It is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy,” he said in a statement.

President Francois Hollande is due to thank them in person on Monday.

The gunman was transferred on Saturday to the Paris region from Arras in northern Francewhere the incident took place. Cazeneuve said under the terms of his arrest the man can be held for four days without being charged.

The shooting took place on a Thalys high-speed train. The Franco-Belgian state transport group runs international trains linking France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

All four countries are part of the Schengen area through which people travel without the need for passports and security check-ins. Experts have long said the trains are a potential target for attacks.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in January there were more than 3,000 potentially dangerous Islamists under surveillance in France, home to Europe's biggest Muslim community.

Most of the attacks and foiled attacks this year in France have been carried out by people who were on that list, but government officials say the surveillance cannot be constant.

“When there's nothing to justify an arrest, there comes a time when you move on to other individuals,” said Sébastien Pietrasanta, a Socialist lawmaker who drafted France's latest anti-terror legislation.

“Given the number of individual linked to radical Islamism its becomes complicated,” he told Reuters.

“We take 100 percent precautions but that does not mean 0 percent risk.”

Denmark sees possible ‘Charlie Hebdo’ motive behind Copenhagen attacks


Police shot dead a gunman on Sunday whose attacks on a Copenhagen synagogue and an event promoting free speech may have been inspired by an attack on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo last month, authorities said.

Denmark's spy chief Jens Madsen said the gunman was known to the intelligence services prior to the shooting and probably acted alone. He did not elaborate.

Two civilians were killed and five police were wounded in the two separate attacks in the Danish capital on Saturday.

“We cannot yet say anything concrete about the motive … but are considering that he might have been inspired by the events in Paris some weeks ago,” Madsen told a news conference.

Danish authorities have been on alert since Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in three days of violence in Paris in January that began with an attack on Charlie Hebdo, long known for its acerbic cartoons on Islam, other religions and politicians.

Police who had earlier released a photo of the suspect dressed in a heavy winter coat and maroon mask, said they did not believe he had received training in Jihadist camps in the Middle East.

Witnesses to the Copenhagen attacks said the gunman fired up to 40 shots at a cafe hosting a free speech event with Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who has received death threats for depicting the head of the Prophet Mohammad on a dog.

Vilks was unhurt but a 55-year-old man was killed. A guard was later shot in the head outside Copenhagen's biggest synagogue, where around 80 people were celebrating a confirmation. Two police officers were also wounded there.

Police shot dead the suspect early on Sunday after he opened fire on them near a railway station in the Noerrebro district, not far from the sites of the two attacks. Officers later searched his home, which was nearby.

Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said the attacks were terrorism and promised to protect freedom of speech and Denmark's small but vibrant Jewish community.

“When you mercilessly fire deadly bullets at innocent people taking part in a debate, when you attack the Jewish community, you attack our democracy,” Thorning-Schmidt said outside the synagogue. “We will do everything possible to protect our Jewish community.”

Denmark's former chief rabbi, Rabbi Bent Lexner, told Israeli Army Radio the synagogue guard was “a fantastic guy”, adding: “We are in shock. I am sitting now with the parents of the man killed. We didn't think such a thing could happen in Denmark.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said such attacks would likely continue and said Israel would welcome European Jews who choose to move to there.

“GET OUT”

Witnesses said French ambassador Francois Zimeray had just finished introducing the cafe event, entitled “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression”, when the assailant opened fire.

The venue was heavily-guarded by police, who fired back, but the attacker nevertheless escaped.

Vilks, who security experts said they believed was the gunman's main target, sheltered on the floor of a cold room at the back of the cafe with one of the event's organizer.

“The rather spare audience got to experience fear and horror – and tragedy. I can't say it affected me as I was well looked after,” Vilks wrote in a blog post.

Helle Merete Brix, organizer of the event at the cafe, told Reuters she had seen an attacker wearing a mask.

“The security guards shouted 'Everyone get out!' and we were being pushed out of the room,” Brix said.

“They tried to shoot their way into the conference room … I saw one of them running by, wearing a mask. There was no way to tell his face.”

Denmark became a target of violent Islamists 10 years ago after the publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad, images which led to sometimes fatal protests in the Muslim world. Many Muslims consider any representation of the Prophet blasphemous.

Vilks stirred controversy himself in 2007 with drawings depicting Mohammad's head on a dog, triggering death threats.

He has lived under Swedish police protection since 2010 and two years ago, an American woman was jailed for 10 years in the United States for plotting to kill him.

Like other European governments, Scandinavian leaders have been increasingly concerned about the radicalization of young Muslims traveling to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside violent jihadist groups such as Islamic State.

Authorities have also been worried about possible lone gunmen like Anders Behring Breivik, the anti-immigrant Norwegian who killed 77 people in 2011, most of them at a youth camp run by Norway's ruling center Labour Party.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he was struck by the similarities between the Copenhagen and Paris attacks: “First an attack against freedom of speech, then an attack against Jews, and then the confrontation with the police,” he told Europe 1 radio.

Blank bullets fired near Paris-area synagogue


Blank bullets were fired outside a synagogue near Paris.

The security unit of France’s Jewish communities, SPCJ, reported that the shots were fired last Friday outside the synagogue at Argenteuil, a northwest suburb of Paris, hours after the city’s chief prosecutor gave a news conference detailing the arrests of suspects in the recent bombing of a Jewish store.

One of the raids, in Strasbourg, ended in the fatal shooting of a suspect in his 30s after he opened fire on police.

At Argenteuil, police found nine blanks after members of the congregation reported the shooting to the police and SPCJ. 

French police, meanwhile, arrested an 11th man whom they say may have been connected to a domestic terrorist cell of alleged jihadists suspected of involvement in the bombing of a kosher supermarket in Sarcelles, home to a large Jewish community that emigrated from North Africa in the 1960s, on Sept. 19.

Two men dressed in black were seen throwing an explosive device into the store. It produced a “weak explosion,” according to French police, in which one man sustained minor injuries.

Police are searching for a 12th suspect.

France arrests more suspected Islamic militants


Ten suspected Islamic militants were arrested in France in the second mass arrest there in recent days.

The suspects are alleged to have ties to radical Islamist websites and had similar profiles to Mohammed Merah, the gunman who killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse, Reuters reported, citing a police source.

Some 19 suspected Islamic militants were arrested last week, including who are members of the extremist group Forsane Alizza, or Knights of Pride. They are under investigation for alleged terrorist activities, Paris public prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters Tuesday, including planning the abduction of a Jewish judge.

French officials have said the arrests are not related to the recent attack on the Toulouse Jewish school.

The latest arrests occurred in the southern French cities of Marseille and Valence, two towns in the southwest, and in the northeastern town of Roubaix, according to Reuters.

The suspects were discovered on Islamist websites expressing extreme views.

Opinion: Reflecting on the Toulouse murders


Addressing an audience of more than a thousand expatriate Iranians in Paris last Saturday, former Attorney General Michael Musasey praised the Iranian Resistance’s leader Maryam Radjavi, a known Muslim political leader, for having “opened the session by extending her sympathy to the Jewish community of Toulouse” over the violent killing of three schoolchildren and a rabbi last week in the city. 

The Iranian resistance’s leader was not the only Muslim figure condemning last week’s brutal killings at the Ozar Hatorah school.  Virtually all Muslim institutions in France condemned the attack, beginning with the highest such authority, the French Council of the Muslim Faith. A large number of Islamic associations followed by issuing statements of condemnation; especially stressing that prior to the school shooting, the killer had shot three Muslim French parachutists in separate incidents.

The strong unity shown by the Muslim and Jewish communities in the sad affair is valuable. It should however not hide social grounds inspiring such acts, isolated for the time being, but threatening to jeopardize the fragile unity if not cured properly. In fact, the shocking event was condemned with different perspectives in mind.

Condemning the killing of three Jewish schoolchildren and three Muslim parachutists as a whole can be misleading, especially by organizations who have in the recent past attacked other moderate Muslims in the country for “being too friendly towards Jews”. The schoolchildren were massacred because of their faith, but the three parachutists were killed simply because they were military personnel. The groups condemning the affair have differed considerably on the same issue before the sad happening.

Imam Hassan Chalgoumi, known for his open and conciliatory position towards other faiths including the Jewish, has been attacked continuously by individuals having founded an association named Cheikh Yassin. The violent group used to come to his mosque in the city of Drancy, north of Paris, on a daily basis, asking for his physical elimination. The imam was granted government protection after the death threats, but the group and its leader remain at large, organizing similar demonstrations elsewhere.  Queer enough, a lot of TV coverage was given to the group’s protests against the moderate Imam on the Arabic emission of Iranian regime’s television, with the main protesters hailing the Iranian president’s anti-Israeli positions in interviews with the TV.

In elections to the European Parliament in 2009, a party code-named Anti Zionist Party presented a list of candidates, who made the “tour de France” on a chartered bus diffusing anti-Israeli propaganda. Several candidates of the said “party” had good relations with Iran, and later made paid trips to that country and where received by no less a person than the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The same party has presented a candidate for the 2012 presidential elections, who apparently has difficulties collecting the 500 endorsements by local elected authorities needed for a candidate to stand national presidential elections. The anti-Israeli propaganda, inspiring hatred against the Jews is ongoing all the same whether there are enough endorsements or not. In fact, a Web site supporting his case is full of Iranian regime’s propaganda, from Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent common speech in Caracas to the obituary for Ahmadinejad’s father in Iran to Iran’s supreme leader’s call to violence addressed to the world’s Muslims prior to the Haj assembly. No surprise that no condemnation of the Toulouse killings appeared on the site.

The laissez-faire attitude in the country towards fundamentalist, even violent movements is coming to attention more and more.

As shocking as the news of the incident itself, a teacher in the north of the country asked her students to observe a moment’s silence for the man who gunned down the three children and the rabbi in Toulouse. The education minister was obliged to call for disciplinary proceedings against her. The request prompted most of the students to empty out of the classroom, but the sordid event shows how grounds are prepared for such atrocities.

In her speech in the Paris gathering, the Iranian resistance’s leader reiterated that “this tragedy is the functionality of fundamentalism under the guise of Islam.”  As the only country with such a fundamentalist Islamic trend in power in it is Iran, the opposition recommends “an alternative based on a democratic and tolerant Islam” as the only remedy for the flea.

With the same idea in mind in the French case, one would have wished for a more clear distinction to be made between moderate and tolerant versions of Islam and fundamentalist and dogmatic ones, rather than combining all trends together trying to squeeze skin-deep, conciliatory positions out of them. In fact, more than a superficial show of unity between all the trends in expressing vague condemnation of such crimes, one would have wished a revision of past positions and practices of everybody in order to strengthen the sound ones and isolate the astray, potentially dangerous ones.

That might permit avoiding future catastrophes.

Sarkozy to networks: Don’t broadcast Merah footage


French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on television networks not to broadcast video footage shot by Mohammed Merah during his attacks on soldiers and on a Jewish school in Toulouse.

The edited footage was sent on a USB flash drive to Al Jazeera in Paris. Al Jazeera sent the drive to police on Monday, Reuters reported.

The package reportedly was mailed to Al Jazeera on March 21, the day that police began their siege of Merah’s Toulouse apartment. Merah was killed following a 30-hour standoff when police stormed his apartment. He was shot in the head while jumping out a window.

A letter accompanying the footage said that Merah had acted on behalf of al-Qaida, The Associated Press reported.

Al Jazeera reportedly is deciding whether to air the footage.

Footage filmed by French gunman sent to Al Jazeera says police source


Video footage filmed by the French gunman Mohamed Merah during his bloody shooting spree has been sent to the Al Jazeera television network in Paris, a police source said on Monday.

Al Jazeera received a computer memory drive containing a montage of footage accompanied by Islamist war songs, and sent the package on to police on Monday, the source close to the investigation told Reuters.

An Al Jazeera employee contacted by Reuters confirmed the report.

The package was dated Wednesday, March 21, the day that police surrounded Merah in his apartment in the southern city of Toulouse after a massive manhunt, according to a report in the Parisian daily newspaper.

French special forces shot the young Islamist the following day after a 30-hour siege.

“Investigators are trying to find out whether the letter was posted Tuesday night by Mohamed Merah himself or by an accomplice Wednesday morning,” the newspaper wrote.

Merah, who said he was inspired by al Qaeda, admitted to killing three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi in a spate of shootings that sent shockwaves through France.

The Paris prosecutor in charge of the case said last week that the Merah had filmed each of the shootings.

Reporting By Gerard Bon; Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Andrew Heavens

Opinion: Strengthening Muslim-Jewish ties in the face of evil


As a rabbi and an imam, we deeply mourn the tragic loss of innocent lives in the murderous terrorist attacks in France. We express our heartfelt sympathy and compassion for the bereaved.

Amid the wall-to-wall media coverage of the attacks and their aftermath, one piece of the story has received less attention: the inspiring manner in which Muslims and Jews in France have stood side by side in denouncing these heinous acts.

Thousands of Muslims and Jews reacted to the savage killings of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse and the earlier murders of three French soldiers, including two Muslims, by joining together in solidarity marches in communities throughout Paris.

Meanwhile, top French Muslim and Jewish leaders have vowed to stand united in opposition to acts which Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, has accurately characterized as being “in total contradiction with the foundation of this religion [Islam].”

This heartening coming-together of Jews and Muslims in France did not happen in a vacuum.

In 2003, Rabbi Michel Serfaty, the spiritual leader of the Jewish community of the Paris suburb of Ris Orangis, responded to being accosted by Muslim youths near his synagogue by founding the Jewish-Muslim Friendship Society of France, which is dedicated to building ties of understanding and trust between the two communities. Every year the organization’s dedicated Muslim and Jewish staffers and volunteers take part in a Tour de France, in the process building a network of ties between grass-roots Muslims and Jews in towns and cities throughout the country.

In 2009, the European imams and rabbis who took part in the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s Mission of European Imams and Rabbis to the United States agreed to participate in the foundation’s annual Weekend of Twinning in which scores of mosques and synagogues and Muslim and Jewish organizations hold one-on-one encounters during a weekend each November in cities around the world.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the FFEU and the Islamic Society of North America will host the first Mission of Latin American Muslim and Jewish Leaders. The event will bring 14 imams and rabbis from five South American countries and two Caribbean islands to Washington for meetings with Muslim and Jewish members of Congress and with top officials at the White House and State Department. We are optimistic the mission will jump-start a process of dialogue and cooperation between the Muslim and Jewish communities of Latin America.

What we have learned from five years of working together to nurture an ever-expanding fabric of Muslim-Jewish relationships—and what has been proven anew by the joint response of Muslims and Jews in France to the terror in Toulouse—is that when Muslims and Jews open sustained face-to-face communication, we can maintain our unity even in the face of unspeakable horror directed against our respective communities.

As we have undertaken together a joint study of Torah, Koran and the oral traditions of our two faiths, we have discovered profound commonalities between our beliefs. We have come to understand that just as we share a common faith—dating back to our common patriarch, Abraham/Ibrahim—we also share a common fate. Our single destiny must strengthen our bonds of concern, compassion and caring for each other.

Indeed, as Jews and Muslims, not only must we carry out a sustained dialogue, but we must actively fight for each other’s rights, standing together against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. We believe deeply that a people which fights for its own rights is only as honorable as when it fights for the rights of all people. For only when we see the humanity in the Other can we preserve it within ourselves.

Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Imam Shamsi Ali is the spiritual leader of the Jamaica Muslim Center in New York.

French shooter was on U.S. “no fly” list


The French Islamist gunman suspected of murdering seven people who was killed in a shootout with police on Thursday was on a “no fly” list maintained by U.S. authorities, two American officials said.

The officials would not disclose precisely when the militant, Mohammed Merah, was placed on the U.S. watch list, but they said his name was added some time ago.

Merah, suspected of shooting three French paratroopers, three young children and a rabbi, was killed during an exchange of gunfire with police who besieged his apartment in the French city of Toulouse.

U.S. and French authorities said Merah, who was of Algerian origin, had traveled to Afghanistan around 2010 to obtain training from Islamic militants. He had spent time with militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border before being captured and returned to France.

At some point after his capture, two other U.S. officials said, Merah was held in custody by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Precise details of how and when this occurred and what happened to him next are still unclear.

Reporting by Mark Hosenball; editing by Christopher Wilson

Editorial cartoon: Toulouse, France


French shooting suspect not jailed in Afghanistan, provincial governor says


An Afghan provincial governor on Wednesday denied statements by a senior prison official that French school shooting suspect Mohamed Merah was jailed for bombings in Afghanistan in 2007 and escaped months later.

Citing prison documents, Kandahar prison chief Ghulam Faruq had told Reuters that Afghan security forces detained Merah on December 19, 2007, and that he was sentenced to three years in jail for planting bombs in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace.

A senior Kandahar intelligence source confirmed Faruq’s account and said he had a file on a French Algerian of the same name, who was arrested in 2007 and broke out of prison in 2008.

But the Kandahar governor’s office said that account was “baseless”, citing judicial records. “Security forces in Kandahar have never detained a French citizen named Mohammad Merah,” the governor’s spokesman, Ahmad Jawed Faisal, said.

Merah’s lawyer in France, Christian Etelin, said his client was in prison in France from December 2007 until September 2009, serving an 18-month sentence for robbery with violence, and therefore could not have been in Afghanistan at the time of the Kandahar jailbreak.

Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, is suspected of killing seven people in the name of the al Qaeda militant network, including three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in southwestern France.

Faruq had said that Merah escaped along with up to 1,000 prisoners, including 400 Taliban insurgents, during an attack on southern Afghanistan’s main Sarposa Prison in June 2008, when the Taliban blew apart the main gate with a big truck bomb.

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and had carried out his killings in revenge for French military involvement abroad.

In Pakistan, an intelligence official who declined to be identified said Merah had never been arrested there. “We have no information about him,” the Pakistani official said.

Writing by Jack Kimball and Rob Taylor; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Paul Taylor in Paris; Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich

Tears flow amidst a determination for democracy


The Jewish community in New York gathered for a memorial service at the Consulate of France Tuesday afternoon.  The well-attended service was organized by Rabbis Joseph Potasnik and Avi Weiss. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, Senior Rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, offered the comfort of psalm and prayer.  The warm sun belied the shutter felt deep in the souls of all who listened as Cantor Paul Zim intoned the “El Male Rachamim,” plaintively calling for the souls of the victims to be gathered to Gan Eden.

In a private conversation with Annette Herszkowicz, the aunt of Eva Sandler, widow of the assassinated Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and mother of Gavriel and Aryeh, she spoke of the joy and happiness the Sandlers were enjoying as they began a life of academic and outreach activities in the Jewish community of South Western France.  “They have killed innocents.  Wonderful young people who had no time to enjoy life and happiness,” she said, as tears ran along her cheeks.

“They were so happy.”  Herszkowicz, who had “exchanged blessings” with her sister during a Sunday night telephone call, said she now had no words to say, no way to comfort her sister or her niece.  She has not spoken with them since the tragedy occurred.

Jonathan and Eva Sandler had returned to their native France from their home in Jerusalem only seven months earlier.  He would teach Torah to the Jewish community of South Western France and do kiruv—outreach—in the community.  At 30, he was already well known as a columnist in Kountrass, a Lithuanian Haredi monthly newspaper distributed in France and Israel. He did outreach work as a volunteer for Shoresh, bringing Judaism to secular Jews.

Eva, a mother of three small children, could be close to her mother. Of Sephardic heritage, she was raised in Paris. Jonathan was of Ashkenazi background.  He had studied in Toulouse before making aliyah. Several members of his family had survived Auschwitz, said Herszkowicz.

“They were overjoyed about life, their children, and one another. Jonathan was scholarly, dedicated to enhancing Torah knowledge.  They were reveling in their growing family, pleased with the birth of a little girl, following her two big brothers,” said their disconsolate aunt.

The massacre at the entrance to the Ozar HaTorah Jewish school in Toulouse, France, brought death to four members of Annette Herszkowicz’s family.  Miriam Monsonego, the 8-year-old executed by bullet to the head, was a cousin.  Jonathan Sandler had come to France to teach at the school her father directed.

In Israel, MK Danny Danon, Chair of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, called for an urgent debate stressing that “the attack on the Jewish school in France is a red warning light for the whole of world Jewry. The countries of the world must unite against such attacks against the Jewish People, and take action to destroy the seeds of anti-Semitic terrorism being planted around the world. We shall not permit the pogroms of the early 20th century to be repeated in Europe.” 

In New York, Consul General Philippe Lalliot spoke privately with JointMedia News Service. Calling Monday “a difficult moment for all, but a day of solidarity,” the Consul said, “the entire national community of France is devastated by the tragedy. There is a profound sense of unity.”

Consul General Lalliot continued, saying, “We have to educate people and make sure that all children learn from history” He stated with determination, “This will not happen.  Never Again.  Never again.”

In a conversation with the Consul General and Dr. Paul de Vries, President of the New York Divinity School and member of the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, both the diplomat and the clergyman spoke of their identification with the tragic events as parents.  “The Consul General termed it a “horror that is beyond words. A democracy must remain vigilant,” he continued.  “We must stand for the rights of all people.”  Lalliot commended the spontaneous gathering in support of the Toulouse community when 200,000 gathered in Paris Monday night.  “France is a democracy, governed by the rule of law, not hatred and killing.  We must stand for our principals.”  The Consul was adamant about the need to create awareness from a child’s earliest years.  “We must teach courage, we must teach respect.  We must recognize the core value of every member of humanity.”

The words of New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler reflect the thoughts of many in the American community.

“I am,” he said, “absolutely horrified by the senseless and cowardly act of violence at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, France. That Jews continue to be targets of hate and violence by lunatics and feeble-minded anti-Semites is despicable. And that a madman would single out children is unspeakably depraved and tragic.”

Security group asks U.S. Jewish groups to be on alert


The security arm of the U.S. Jewish federations asked Jewish officials to remain vigilant in the wake of a deadly attack on a French Jewish school, citing the possibility of copycat attacks.

“While this event initially appears to be localized, we are always concerned about the possibility of copycat attacks,” a spokesman for the Secure Community Network, the Jewish Federations of North America’s security initiative, told JTA. “We’ve been in contact with our European partners and are continuing to monitor the situation.”

Four people—a teacher and three students—were shot dead Monday outside a Jewish school in Toulouse. A man riding a motorbike reportedly opened fire outside the Ozar Hatorah School, where students were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day.

The shooter then entered the building shooting at students and teachers before fleeing on his motorbike.

After Toulouse attack, Sarkozy suspends campaign and Jews warn of rising anti-Semitism


The attack by an unidentified gunman on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France was condemned by Jewish leaders, who also warned against the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe.

“Whoever did this is looking to target the Jewish community at its weakest point, its youth, in the hopes of spreading fear throughout the community,” said Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, in a statement. “They will not succeed. The Jews of Europe in general and the Jews of France in particular have a long history of standing firm against hatred and violence, and I know as a community French Jewry will send a message of strength and resilience in the face of those who wish to terrorize them.”

A man riding a motorbike reportedly opened fire Monday morning outside the Ozar Hatorah School, where students were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day. The shooter then entered the building and continued shooting at students and teachers before fleeing on his motorbike.

Several students also were injured inside the building. The dead are reported to be a 30-year-old rabbi and his 3-year-old and 6-year-old sons, as well as the 10-year-old daughter of the school’s principal.

“This is a brazen assault on France and French society, and another telling reminder of the dangers that exist for Jewish communities in today’s world,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, in a statement. “We count on French authorities to pursue the investigation vigorously, arrest whoever is involved, and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, as well as review security at Jewish institutions. We have confidence they will.”

Anti Defamation League national Director Abraham Foxman pointed out that the Jewish community of Toulouse has been targeted in the past three years with anti-Semitic acts of violence.

“It is critically important that the Jewish community in France feel assured that they will be safe and secure in the aftermath of this horrific incident, and we welcome the announcement that security will be intensified at Jewish institutions throughout France,” Foxman said. “We appreciate President Sarkozy’s decision to immediately go to Toulouse, for the government’s clear message to all French schools to stand in solidarity, and for the direct public statements that no efforts will be spared to bring the killer to justice.”

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant ordered security to be tightened around all Jewish schools in France after the attack.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the attack a “national tragedy” and vowed to find the killer. “This is a day of national tragedy because children were killed in cold blood,” Sarkozy said in Toulouse, where he rushed after suspending his reelection campaign. “Barbarity, savagery, cruelty cannot win. Hate cannot win. We will find him.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would do everything to help France track down the killer. “Today we had a savage crime in France that gunned down French Jews, among them children. It’s too early to say what the precise background for this act of murder is, but I think that we can’t rule out that there was a strong murderous anti-Semitic motive here,” Netanyahu said.

“I haven’t heard yet a condemnation from any of the UN bodies but I have heard that one such body, the UN Human Rights Council,  invited on this very day a senior representative of Hamas – on this day, when we had the savage murder, they chose to invite a member of Hamas,” Netanyahu added.

“We are horrified by this attack and we trust the French authorities to shed full light on this tragedy and bring the perpetrators of these murders to justice,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP.

The White House also condemned the attack. “We were deeply saddened to learn of the horrific attack this morning against the teachers and students of a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims, and we stand with a community in grief.”

From Middle East to France, a Jewish school’s journey


Rabbi Jean-Paul Amoyelle, head of the Ozar Hatorah network of Jewish schools in France, was woken at 4 a.m. during a visit to New York with chilling news.

Jewish schools and synagogues in France had been targeted in a string of attacks in the past decade, many of them arson, but this was different.

A gunman had shot dead three children and a 30-year-old Hebrew teacher at his school in Toulouse, one of 20 in France with roots in the diaspora of Middle Eastern Jewry.

The shooting marks a tragic turn for Ozar Hatorah, which was created in the wake of the Holocaust in the mid-1940s by a Syrian-born Jew intent on improving the lot of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa.

In 2001 a classroom was burned down at a “Ozar Hatorah”, or “Treasure of the Torah”, school in the Paris suburb of Creteil, but the perpetrator turned out to be a pupil.

Amoyelle said Monday’s attack was a sign of growing danger.

“This was deliberate. Anti-semitic and deliberate, I have no doubt,” Amoyelle said by telephone as he was due to return to France. “I plan to install a zone of reinforced security.”

The creator of Ozar Hatorah, Isaac Shalom, opened schools in countries including Morocco, Iran, Libya and Syria to respond to what his network described as disastrous educational conditions.

As the region underwent upheaval and war following the creation of the state of Israel, Ozar Hatorah also followed the path of Jewish emigration, starting schools in France from the late 1960s as large numbers of North African Jews crossed the Mediterranean to escape heightened regional tensions.

“I was in France in 1967. I began with a school in Sarcelles (a Paris suburb), and there was already one in Lyon,” said Amoyelle, who now oversees 20 schools across Paris and cities like Marseille, Strasbourg and Aix-les-bains.

“These are schools that are perfectly integrated in the community,” he added, describing the educational program as offering two possibilities: a straightforward French education as well as a Jewish education rooted in history and religion.

Today there are over 30,000 students enrolled in Jewish schools in France, according to the French Jewish association CRIF. The number of enrolments has stabilized since 2005, according to Jewish education expert Patrick Petit-Ohayon.

Ozar Hatorah offers what Amoyelle describes as “a certain security”, a precious commodity for parents made wary by the arson attacks. Guards stand at the door to check visitors and the railings were elongated after 2001.

Parents and pupils have been left shocked and bewildered in an area they thought was safe.

“This area is very calm and as far as I know there had not been any threats,” said Laura, a parent at the school, who declined to give her last name.

Her daughter said teachers had hurried them into various rooms, including the synagogue, when the shooting broke out. “I didn’t see anything, but I heard several shots,” she said.

“It was scary.”

Additional reporting by Chine Labbe and John Irish; editing by Geert De Clercq and Philippa Fletcher

Sarkozy: Gunman in French shootings driven by racism [VIDEO]


French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that the same gunman who shot dead a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday was also responsible for the killing of three soldiers last week, apparently motivated by racism.

“We know that it is the same person and the same weapon that killed the soldiers, the children and the teacher,” Sarkozy said in a televised address, saying the terrorism alert level in France had been raised.

“This act is odious and cannot remain unpunished.”

Sarkozy also said he would suspend his campaign for France’s April-May presidential election until Wednesday.

Reporting By Daniel Flynn and Leigh Thomas; editing by Nicolas Vinocur

 

New York City police tighten security at Jewish sites


New York police ramped up security at synagogues and other Jewish institutions on Monday following the deadly attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said tightened surveillance and increased patrols at more than 40 locations citywide came in response to the Toulouse attack and not in response to a specific threat against New York City.

“We know that we’re the top of the terrorist target list, so we’re concerned about the so-called copy-cat syndrome where someone might see the events unfolding in Toulouse and take it upon themselves to act out,” Kelly told reporters.

He said the additional coverage includes some undercover officers “but it’s largely increased uniformed presence at houses of worship and other locations.”

A gunman on a motorbike shot dead three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday, just days after apparently killing three soldiers nearby.

New York City, home to more than 1.4 million Jews, has the largest Jewish population of any metropolitan area outside of Israel, said Levi Fishman, spokesman UJA-Federation of New York.

Following attacks abroad, the department typically reinforces security at corresponding targeted locations in New York such as hotels or the mass transit system.

Reporting By Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Philip Barbara

L.A.’s French Jews react to Toulouse killings


French Jews in Southern California reacted with sadness and disgust, but not surprise, to the shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, that left three children and one teacher dead.

“In France you are scared – you cannot even wear a kippah on the street,” said Francky Perez, who moved with his wife from Paris to Los Angeles three years ago to allow their children, now 6 and 7, to express their Judaism in a safe environment. “Even if what happened in Toulouse turns out not to be anti-Semitism, you cannot pretend that hate doesn’t exist in France. It’s a reality.”

At press time Tuesday, the gunman remained at large. On Monday, a man on a motorcycle opened fire as students and parents were entering Ozar Hatorah at the start of the day, then chased students into the school as he continued shooting. Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, and his two sons, Gavriel, 3, and Aryeh, 6, were killed. The school’s principal, Rabbi Yaacov Monsonego, saw his 7-year-old daughter Miriam killed in front of him. A 17-year-old boy is in critical condition.

The area in southwestern France remains under heavy security.

“We’re all absolutely shocked. A tragedy like this shows the worst of human nature, if we can still talk about human nature in this case,” said David Martinon, France’s consul general in Los Angeles.

French investigators have linked the shooting at the 200-student school to two shootings in the area last week that killed three soldiers and left another critically injured. The soldiers were of North African and Caribbean descent.

[UPDATE: More on this story

Four killed in shooting at French Jewish school


Four people—a teacher and three students—were shot dead outside a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, officials said.

A man riding a motorbike reportedly opened fire Monday morning outside the Ozar Hatorah School, where students were waiting to enter the building at the start of the school day. The shooter then entered the building and continued shooting at students and teachers before fleeing on his motorbike.

Several students also were injured inside the building, according to reports. The dead are reported to be a teacher and his two sons, as well as the daughter of the school’s principal. 

Some 200 students attend the school, according to Israel Radio.

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant ordered security to be tightened around all Jewish schools in France after the attack, the French news agency AFP reported.

Gueant and French President Nicolas Sarkozy traveled toToulouse. Sarkozy called the attack a “national tragedy” and vowed to find the killer

The attack followed the fatal shootings of three off-duty soldiers in and near Toulouse by a gunman on a motorbike over the past week. It was not known if the attacks were connected.

“We are horrified by this attack and we trust the French authorities to shed full light on this tragedy and bring the perpetrators of these murders to justice,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP.

“Whoever did this is looking to target the Jewish community at its weakest point, its youth, in the hopes of spreading fear throughout the community,” said Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, in a statement. “They will not succeed. The Jews of Europe in general and the Jews of France in particular have a long history of standing firm against hatred and violence, and I know as a community French Jewry will send a message of strength and resilience in the face of those who wish to terrorize them.

“This is a brazen assault on France and French society, and another telling reminder of the dangers that exist for Jewish communities in today’s world,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, in a statement. “We count on French authorities to pursue the investigation vigorously, arrest whoever is involved, and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, as well as review security at Jewish institutions. We have confidence they will.”

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