Paris was struck by coordinated attacks on Friday night, causing chaos in the French capital in one of the deadliest terrorist atrocities on a western city since September 11.
President François Hollande declared that “several dozen” had died as he appeared on television to declare a state of emergency, deploying the military around Paris and closing France’s borders.
At least six attacks began in busy areas of the capital around 10pm local time. shootings targeted a concert hall near Place de la République and two other nearby restaurants in the 10th and 11th arrondissement, while two explosions rocked the Stade de France in northern Paris.
The assualt may have killed as many as 60 people, according to a police officer with knowledge of the situation. AFP reported that at least 39 were dead, while the Associated Press said there were at least 26 fatalities.
“It’s horrific,” he said. ‘Operations are still unfolding, there’s a police assault at the moment in Paris. We are mobilising all the police force possible to neutralise the terrorists.”
A witness recounted on BFM TV seeing gunmen shooting at clients in a restaurant near rue de Charonne. Another restaurant, Le Petit Cambodge, was targeted. Special forces were being sent to the Bataclan concert hall on Boulevard Voltaire, where one or several attackers may be holding hostages, according to the officer.
At the Stade de France, it is also reported that about 20 minutes into the game, the sellout crowd — decked in red, white and blue for the match against the world champions — heard a loud explosion coming from outside the stadium.
There were a few cheers — a common response to a firecracker at a match. But a few minutes later another loud bang was heard, followed by police sirens, and it became apparent that these were not firecrackers. President Hollande, who was in the crowd, left the stadium.
The match continued and French fans did the Mexican wave, and exuberantly cheered the two French goals. At the end of the match, the stadium announcer informed the crowd through the tannoy that because of ‘incidents outside’, they could only leave the stadium by certain gates.
Many fans left the Stade de France, but a couple of thousand walked on to the field, where they waited quietly, uncertain whether to leave the stadium and go home, especially given the reports of shootings coming from central Paris. But within 45 minutes of the final whistle, almost all the crowd had vacated the stadium.
The BBC reported that at least one man opened fire with an automatic weapon in a shootout in a central Paris restaurant shooting in the 10th arrondissement of the capital.
In a brief statement from the White House, President Barack Obama said that the violence was “terrorism” and promised that the US would provide any help that France requested.
“We will do whatever it takes to work with the French people and nations around the world to bring these terrorists to justice,” he said. The attacks were an “outrageous attempt to terrorise innocent civilians”.
He added: “This was not just an attack on Paris and the people of France, but an attack on all of humanity and universal values we share.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that he is “shocked by events in Paris tonight,” adding, “our thoughts and prayers are with the French people.” German’s Angela Merkel said she was profoundly shocked by the “terrorist” attacks.
If the casualties are confirmed, the attacks would be much deadlier than the terrorist assaults that hit the French capital in January, when three Islamist extremists killed 17 in a series of attacks at weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket.
Since the Charlie Hebdo assaults, France has lived on high alert. The French government has deployed thousands soldiers throughout the country.
Several months after those attacks, a man decapitated his employer and tried to blow up a gas plant in southern France in what prosecutors say was an attack inspired by Isis.
In August, a heavily armed Islamic radical was only just prevented from attacking a high-speed train between Amsterdam and Paris with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, apprehended with the help of two US soldiers.
France is bombing Isis targets in Syria and Iraq and also has troops fighting extremists in Africa.
As events have continued to unfold in Paris on Friday night, the picture that is slowly emerging appears to amount to sum of Western intelligence agencies fears. For years, Western spymasters have worried over the possibility of a ‘Mumbai-style’ attack, involving multiple terrorists and numerous targets in a crowded metropolitan area.
While counterterror agencies have worked hard to mitigate the threat of such an attack, the reality, as officials have long warned, is that it was almost inevitable.
“Even at this early stage it looks like a well-co-ordinated, substantial attack with multiple cells and multiple targets,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international studies at the think-tank RUSI. “This kind of thing will have required a lot of training and a lot of preparation.”
Though yet unclear who is behind the atrocities, prominent Isis twitter accounts began using the hashtag ‘Paris Is Burning’ in what appeared to be a planned and co-ordinated manner on Friday evening.
France has long been a prime target for the jihadi group. The French military is among the most active in striking Isis targets, and France is a far easier target for Isis to strike than other similarly-regarded foes such as the US and UK. To boot, over 1500 French citizens have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight as mujahideen there for Isis or other violent terror groups. Many have already returned.
“This seems at the least like an engorged version of the Charlie Hebdo attack,” said Mr Pantucci. “I don’t know how long it is going to drag on for, but it’s surely already going to be looked back on as one of the largest terror attacks in Europe since 9/11 — I can only think of the Madrid bombings as a comparison in terms of this kind of marauding, high-casualty plot.”