Soldiers thwart attack on Louvre, tourists held in lockdown
Paris was plunged into panic Friday - again - when soldiers guarding the Louvre Museum shot an attacker who lunged at them with a machete and shouted "Allahu Akbar!" as the historic landmark went into lockdown.
The threat appeared to quickly recede after the assailant was hospitalized, but it cast a new shadow over the city just as tourism was beginning to rebound after a string of deadly attacks. The timing was also unfortunate: just hours before Paris finalized its bid for the 2024 Olympics.
The suspect is believed to be an Egyptian national, two police union officials said, though no other information about his identity or motive was released.
Anti-terrorism prosecutors took charge of the investigation into what French President Francois Hollande said was "no doubt" a terrorist attack.
Police carried out raids near the tree-lined Champs-Elysees linked to the attack, which came two months after authorities carried out a special anti-terrorism exercise around the Louvre.
Friday's attack targeted an entrance to a shopping mall that extends beneath the sprawling museum, a medieval former royal palace now home to the Mona Lisa and hundreds of other masterpieces.
The 1,200 people inside the Louvre - one of the world's biggest tourist attractions - were first shuttled into windowless rooms as part of a special security protocol before being evacuated.
The museum in central Paris remained closed for the rest of Friday but will reopen on Saturday, Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay told reporters.
Hollande, at a news conference Malta where he was attending a European Union summit, said that while the Louvre incident was quickly contained, the overall threat to France remains. He said the incident showed the need for the increased security patrols deployed around France since attacks in 2015.
Police union official Yves Lefebvre said the Louvre attacker was carrying two backpacks and had two machetes. He said the man lunged at the soldiers when they told him he couldn't bring his bags into the Carrousel du Louvre shopping mall.
"That's when he got the knife out and that's when he tried to stab the soldier," Lefebvre said.
The four soldiers first tried to fight off the attacker before opening fire, said Benoit Brulon, a spokesman for the military force that patrols Paris and its major tourist attractions.
The military patrols - numbering about 3,500 soldiers in the Paris area - were deployed following the January 2015 attacks on Paris' satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and reinforced after the November 2015 bomb-and-gun attacks that left 130 people dead at the city's Bataclan concert hall and other sites.
Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux praised the soldiers, saying "to wear a uniform, as we can see in the propaganda of those who want to attack us, is to be a target."
One soldier was slightly injured in the scalp, officials said. Another soldier opened fire, gravely wounding the attacker in the stomach, said police chief Michel Cadot. "He is conscious and he was moving."
Checks of the man's two backpacks found they didn't contain explosives, Cadot said. He said a second person who was "acting suspiciously" also was arrested but appeared not to have been linked to the attack.
Restaurant worker Sanae Hadraoui, 32, was waiting for breakfast at a McDonald's in the Louvre's restaurant complex when she heard the first gunshot, followed by another and then a couple more.
"I hear a shot. Then a second shot. Then maybe two more. I hear people screaming, 'Evacuate! Evacuate!'" she said. "They told us to evacuate. I told my colleagues at the McDonald's. We went downstairs and then took the emergency exit."
Parisian Makram Chokri, who was shopping in the mall, described hearing a "boom, boom, boom over a few seconds. ... We thought it was an exercise at first but you know, you have a lot of scenarios going through your mind."
Police sealed off mall entrances near the Louvre and closed the area to vehicles, snarling traffic in Paris. Confused tourists were shooed away.
Lance Manus, a tourist from Albany, New York, described young girls crying in panic, and had immediate thoughts of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
"That's what we're used to now," he said. "I mean we have to learn to live with it, be vigilant. So we listen to instructions from the security guards and do what they told us."
Eric Grau, a high school teacher chaperoning a group of 52 students, said: "We were in one of the galleries and a voice came through the loudspeakers to alert us, saying there was an alert." He said the group was taken to safety in the African art gallery.
The attack came hours before the city unveiled its bid for the 2024 Olympics. Paris is competing against Budapest and Los Angeles for the games, which it hasn't hosted since 1924.
With the International Olympic Committee choosing the host in September, Friday's attack generated renewed questions about security in the City of Light.
Speaking outside the Louvre, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said terrorism threatens all of the world's big cities and "there is not a single one escaping that menace."
The speed with which Paris largely went back to normal after the attack, with officers gradually dismantling barricades and pulling down police tape around the Louvre just three hours later, underscored how the French city has - unwillingly but stoically - been forced to learn to live with extremist threats.
Within hours, French radio stations went back to talking about storms battering the west coast and school holiday traffic.