Paris shooting casts shadow over final day of election campaign

A deadly attack on a police bus in the heart of Paris cast the shadow of terror over the final days of the French presidential election campaign.

A gunman wielding a machine gun leapt out of a car and opened fire on the Champs-Elysees, Paris’s most famous boulevard, as candidates were engaging in their final TV debate ahead of Sunday’s vote.

The attack left a police officer dead and two others critically wounded. Panicked tourists fled the scene, and the assailant was shot dead as he tried to make his escape.

Paris prosecutors named the attacker as Karim Cheurfi, a French national with a long criminal record who was reportedly on the radar of intelligence services.

A second man, suspected of being linked to the shooting, surrendered himself in Belgium. French police arrested three relatives of Cheurfi.

ISIS claimed that the attack was carried out by one of its “fighters,” whom it called “the Belgian.”

Key developments:

Attack came days before first round of voting in presidential election.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen calls for closure of all Islamist mosques.
Rival François Fillon calls for unity and says France is “at war” against terror.
ISIS names a man it claims was involved in the attack.

Election in turmoil

Three leading presidential candidates, François Fillon, Emmanuel Macron and Le Pen, canceled campaign events after the shooting. Under French election rules, Friday was due to be the final day of campaigning before Sunday’s first round of voting.

It was unclear whether the attack would tip the balance of the vote in favour of Le Pen, who has vowed to take a tough line on “Islamic terrorism”.

At a televised news conference Friday, Le Pen called for the closure of all “Islamist” mosques in France, the expulsion of hate preachers and the reinstatement of French borders.

People on the French security services’ watch list for radicalization should also be expelled from France and have their French citizenship revoked, she said.

The French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve accused Le Pen of trying to capitalize on the attack. “The candidate from National Front, like every drama, seeks to profit and use the situation to divide and benefit for exclusively political ends”, he said in a televised address.

Fillon said that if elected he would focus on the destruction of ISIS.

“In times such as these we have to demonstrate that France is united,” he said. “We also have to be clear that we are in a state of emergency. We are at war. This fight for freedom and for the security of the French people must be the priority of the next five-year term.”

Terror investigation

On its media channel, Amaq, ISIS claimed that the attack was carried out by “Abu Yousuf al-Baljiki (the Belgian) and he is one of the Islamic State’s fighters.” It was not clear whether ISIS was referring to the man who surrendered himself in Antwerp.

Security in Paris has been stepped up in recent days, but the presence of 50,000 police officers on the streets was not enough to prevent the latest assault, which was being investigated by anti-terror officials.

French President François Hollande convened a meeting of the country’s defense council Friday.

The attack unfolded on the Champs-Elysees around 9 p.m. local time (3 p.m. ET) when a car stopped in front of a police van, according to French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre Henry Brandet.

A man emerged from the car and opened fire on the van with an “automatic weapon,” killing one officer instantly, Brandet said. The man “then ran away, managing to shoot and wound two other policemen. Other policemen engaged and shot and killed the attacker,” he added.

The dead officer was 30, Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins said. One of the wounded officers was critically injured but is improving, he said. Also wounded was a female tourist.

A source close to the investigation said the attacker had a long criminal record. He shot two officers in 2001 after being stopped by a police, according to the source. He was taken into custody but while being questioned grabbed another officer’s gun and shot him three times, the source added. He was convicted in that attack and had a criminal record because of involvement in violent robberies.

Earlier this week French authorities arrested two men in Marseille who were allegedly planning an attack in a run-up to the election.

World leaders react

Speaking in Indonesia Friday, US Vice President Mike Pence said the attack was just the latest reminder “that terrorism can strike anywhere at any time.”

Quoting President Donald Trump, Pence said “we have to be strong, and we have to be vigilant.”

Trump himself weighed in at a news conference in Washington following the attack. “What can you say? It never ends,” the President said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her condolences to Hollande and said her sympathy “goes out to the victims and their families,” according to her spokesman Steffen Seibert.

British Prime Minister Theresa May also spoke to Hollande. In a statement, the UK government said it “strongly condemns the appalling terrorist attack in Paris.”

France has been in a state of emergency since the 2015 Paris attacks, which left 130 people dead. Parliament voted in December to extend the extraordinary provisions to ensure the protection of upcoming presidential and general elections.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the extent to which French intelligence authorities were monitoring Karim Cheurfi before the attack.

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