World leaders and media rights groups have condemned the “barbaric” shooting at a Paris weekly which has left 12 dead, dubbing it an act of terror and an attack on free speech.
France’s EU allies lined up to offer their support after gunmen armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles and a rocket-launcher opened fire at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo today, in what President Francois Hollande said was a “terrorist attack”.
The White House condemned the attack in “the strongest possible terms.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said the shooting was “sickening” and “barbaric”, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel called it “despicable”.
“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,” Cameron said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was a “brazen assault on free expression in the heart of Europe”, while Reporters Without Borders called it a “black day”.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States stood ready to help French authorities investigate the assault.
“Everybody here at the White House are with the families of those who were killed or injured in this attack,” he said.
Police said witnesses heard the attackers shout “we have avenged the prophet” and “Allahu akbar” (“God is greatest”).
One man who witnessed the shooting said he saw two attackers shooting their way out of Charlie Hebdo at around 11:30 am (10.30GMT).
“I saw them leaving and shooting. They were wearing masks. These guys were serious,” said the man who declined to give his name.
“At first I thought it was special forces chasing drug traffickers or something. We weren’t expecting this. You would think we were in a movie.”
Charlie Hebdo has angered Muslims in the past for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
The prime minister of Denmark, where the publication of a dozen cartoons of Islam’s founding prophet in 2005 also triggered violent protests, said she stood with France.
French President Francois Hollande arrived at the scene of the shooting after rushing there and calling an emergency cabinet meeting, the presidency said.
The government raised its alert level to the highest possible in the greater Paris region.
A source close to the investigation said a gunman had hijacked a car and knocked over a pedestrian while attempting to speed away.
The publication’s cartoonist Renaud Luzier earlier told AFP there were “casualties” after the incident.
The satirical newspaper’s offices were fire-bombed in November 2011 when it published a cartoon of Mohammed and under the title “Charia Hebdo”.
Despite being taken to court under anti-racism laws, the weekly continued to publish controversial cartoons of the Muslim prophet.
In September 2012 Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of a naked Mohammed as violent protests were taking place in several countries over a low-budget film, titled “Innocence of Muslims”, which was made in the United States and insulted the prophet.
French schools, consulates and cultural centres in 20 Muslim countries were briefly closed along with embassies for fear of retaliatory attacks at the time.
Editor Stephane Charbonnier has received death threats and lives under police protection.