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Charlie Hebdo massacre: Manhunt for Paris killers underway as thousands join vigils around the world

Security level in France raised to the highest level following 'revenge attack' for cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed

By Joanne Sweeney

A huge manhunt is underway in France as security forces try to track down the terrorists who shot dead 12 people, including 8 journalists and 2 police officers, at the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

The gunmen are on the run - and 3,000 officers have been tasked onto the streets of Paris to find them.

As the security level in Paris was raised to the highest level - critical - President Francois Hollande declared Thursday a day of national mourning.

Thousands have united in shock and outrage at vigils in Paris, London, Dublin and around the world to honour the victims of the massacre.

In the Place de la Republique journalists held up their press cards, while members of the public silently raised pens in the air in a poignant symbol against what is being seen as an attack on freedom of speech.

The masked gunmen stormed an editorial meeting in a boardroom in the building shouting 'Allahu Akbar' - God is greater - several times before they carried out their bloody attack.

Footage showed them shouting in French “we have killed Charlie Hebdo -we have avenged the Prophet Mohamed,” in an apparent reference to the magazine’s publication of controversial cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet.

French media reports quote unnamed police sources as saying the three suspects have been identified.

Eyewitnesses said they heard as many as 50 shots fired by the attackers both inside the Charlie Hebdo office and on the streets outside.

Among the journalists killed were the magazine’s editor and cartoonist, Stéphane Charbonnier and three other cartoonists; Cabu, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac and economist Bernard Maris.

Charbonnier, 47, had received death threats in the past and was living under police protection.

Shocking video footage has emerged showing the terrorists killing an injured police officer lying on the ground by shooting him in the head.

However, Gerard Biard, the magazine's editor-in-chief, escaped as he was in London.

“I don’t understand how people can attack a newspaper with heavy weapons. A newspaper is not a weapon of war," he told the France Inter website.

Other journalists escaped to the building's roof where they filmed the horrific attack.

The Charlie Hebdo website crashed afterwards, and when it came back online it showed only the 'Je Suis Charlie' graphic that has gone viral on social media.

Survivor Corinne Rey told how she watched the terrorists shoot two of her colleagues after they forced her to let them into the building.

The designer had gone out to collect her daughter from daycare when two hooded and armed men arrived at the door and brutally threatened her.

She said that they spoke "perfect French" and claimed to be from Al-Qaida.

The killers hijacked a car to make their escape. The Citroen hatchback is being examined by forensics teams after being dumped.

Interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said three men were being hunted and said “all the means” had been mobilised to “neutralise the three criminals who have committed this barbaric act”.

He added that the operation will take place as quickly as possible in order to “identify the aggressors and arrest them in a way that they will be punished with the severity that corresponds to the barbaric act they have committed”.

The gunmen fled eastwards towards the Paris suburbs, dumping their car in a residential area, police said. They then hijacked another car before running over a pedestrian and disappearing.

“There is a possibility of other attacks and other sites are being secured,” police union official Rocco Contento said.

French president Francois Hollande said it was a "terrorist attack" which had left France in a state of shock.

He said: "At least 40 people have been saved - we don't know the exact number of victims."

"This newspaper was threatened several times in the past. We need to show that we are a united country. We have to be firm, we have to be strong.

"We are at a very difficult moment. Several terrorist attacks have been impeded during the previous weeks. We are threatened because we are a country of freedom.

"We fight threats and we will punish the attackers."

A spokesman for President Obama said the US will help the French apprehend those responsible, while German chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the attack, calling it an an "abominable act" that was "an attack on freedom of speech and the press".

Witnesses described the scene as "butchery, a real slaughter".

Minutes before the attack, Charlie Hebdo had tweeted a satirical cartoon of that extremist group's leader giving New Year's wishes.

The shootings in the French capital come shortly after an outbreak of opportunist attacks in crowded spaces across France - prompting fears that copycat attacks could be launched in the UK.

Late last month, a van burst into a Christmas market in the western city of Nantes, injuring 10 people before the driver reportedly began stabbing himself.

In the eastern city of Dijon, a driver reportedly shouting ''God is great'' in Arabic ran down several people, injuring 13 before coming to a stop.

Those incidents came after an attacker knifed three police officers in Tours before he was shot dead by one of the officers.

The French government denied links between the attacks but announced plans to further raise security in public spaces, including the deployment of around 300 soldiers.

British security services are likely to be in contact with French counterparts once a clearer picture of the latest attack is formed.

Ed Miliband said he felt "horror and outrage" about the attack after Mr Cameron led condemnation in the Commons at prime minister's questions.

"We stand in solidarity with the people of France against this evil terrorist attack by people intent on attacking our democratic way of life and freedom of speech," the Labour leader said.

"We are united in our determination to beat them."

London mayor Boris Johnson said: "Shocked and appalled by senseless attack at Charlie Hebdo - London stands with Paris and the people of France against this horrific scourge."

Mr Cameron told MPs: "This House and this country stands united with the French people in our opposition to all forms of terrorism and we stand squarely for free speech and democracy.

"These people will never be able to take us off those values."

Local news outlets report the Secretariat General de la Defense et de la Securite Nationale has raised the status of its Vigipirate plan - the French national security alert system - to "alerte attentat", the highest level, across the entire Ile-de-France region around Paris.

According to a map compiled by French newspaper Le Monde, Charlie Hebdo vigils are being held tonight in Dublin, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Brussels, Madrid, Rome, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, Tunis, Lima, Rio de Janeiro and in cities across France.

Further reading

Belfast Telegraph stands united with French colleagues to defend a free Press 

Muslims condemn paper arson attack

Firebombed paper ups print run

Magazine mockery spreads Islam row

Freedom of speech an ideal to be revered but restrained 

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