FRANCE (AFP) – Mourners packed a church in a rural French town rocked by a deadly Islamist attack for a service yesterday in tribute to the victims, who included a policeman hailed as a hero for offering himself in place of a hostage.
Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, 44, was shot and stabbed after taking the place of a woman whom Radouane Lakdim had been using as a human shield during his attack Friday at a supermarket in the town of Trebes.
The sleepy town of 5,000, located on the picturesque Canal du Midi, is just eight kilometers from the famed medieval walled city of Carcassone, where a silent march is planned next Saturday, the eve of Easter Day.
The bishop of Carcassonne and Narbonne celebrated the mass in Trebes’ Church of Saint-Etienne to honour the four killed and three wounded in the attacks claimed by the Islamic State group.
Parish priest Philippe Guitart warned against blaming Muslims in general for jihadist attacks. “We must… help people to learn to live together,” he said.
Representatives from the Muslim community attended the mass, which had an overflow crowd listening to the service through loudspeakers outside the small church as armed police stood by.
“We have had a long friendship with them,” Bishop Alain Planet said. “They are very aware of this sadness, which affects them as well.”
A national tribute will be held at a later date for Mr Beltrame, who President Emmanuel Macron said had “died a hero” and deserved “the respect and admiration of the whole nation”.
Following the worst jihadist attack of his presidency, Macron has called a meeting later this week of the security services who monitor individuals suspected of radicalisation. Mr Lakdim, 25, a petty criminal, was on a watchlist, but authorities had concluded the Moroccan-born French national did not pose a threat.
Investigators found notes referring to IS at Mr Lakdim’s home in Carcassonne including a hand-written letter in which he claimed allegiance to the jihadist group.
Mr Lakdim, who was armed with a gun, knife and homemade explosive devices according to a security source, was shot dead as police moved in to end his siege of the Super U supermarket where he had holed up after a shooting spree in Carcassonne.
Earlier Friday the gunman had hijacked a car in Carcassonne and shot the two people inside, killing the passenger and leaving the Portuguese driver in a critical condition. He also shot and wounded a police officer out jogging.
Mr Lakdim had already shot dead the supermarket’s butcher and a customer when Mr Beltrame offered to take the place of a woman he had taken hostage.
Mr Lakdim shot and stabbed the policeman before he was killed by anti-terror officers.
Mr Beltrame died of his wounds early Saturday, becoming the fourth victim in the shooting spree.
The shootings come as France, part of the US-led coalition fighting IS, remains on high alert following a string of deadly attacks that have killed more than 240 people since 2015.
A small-time drug-dealer, Mr Lakdim’s rap sheet included convictions for carrying a banned weapon and for drug use. He spent a month in jail in 2016. His girlfriend and a 17-year-old friend were in custody.
IS claimed Friday’s attack was in response to its call to target Western enemies, as is customary when the assailant has pledged allegiance to the jihadists.