LEVALLOIS-PERRET, France (AP) — A man rammed his car into a group of soldiers near Paris, injuring six of them, and then was cornered by police in a highway manhunt – the latest in what’s become a disturbingly familiar pattern of attacks targeting French security forces.
It’s unclear what motivated the driver, who was hospitalized with bullet wounds after the calculated morning ambush and an hours-long police chase. Authorities said he deliberately accelerated his BMW into a cluster of soldiers in what prosecutors are investigating as a potential terrorist attack.
President Emmanuel Macron went to Twitter to express his “congratulations to the forces of order that apprehended the perpetrator of the attack,” and also to urge continued vigilance across the country.
Macron’s government painted the incident in the suburb of Levallois-Perret as proof of the need to approve a new security law that critics contend infringes on liberties and would put France in a permanent state of emergency.
Wednesday’s attack caused no deaths and hurt no civilians, but still set nerves on edge: It was the seventh attempted attack on security forces guarding France this year alone. While others have targeted prominent sites like the Eiffel Tower, Wednesday’s attack hit the leafy, relatively affluent suburb of Levallois-Perret that is home to France’s main intelligence service, the DGSI, and its counterterrorism service.
“We know it was a deliberate act,” Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said. Defense Minister Florence Parly called it a reminder that extra security measures imposed in recent years are “more necessary than ever.”
On a quiet summer morning, the suspect was seen waiting in a black BMW in a cul-de-sac near the Levallois city hall and a building used as a staging point for soldiers in France’s operation to protect prominent sites, according to two police officials, who like others connected to the case weren’t authorized to be publicly named because of the ongoing police operation.
A group of soldiers emerged from the building to board vehicles for a new shift when the car sped up and rammed into them, its force hurling the soldiers against their van, one of the officials said. Collomb said the car first approached slowly then sped up about five meters (yards) from its target.
A nearby resident described hearing an ear-piercing scream of pain, then soldiers chasing after the fleeing car.
Authorities checked video surveillance of the area and police fanned out and stopped numerous cars as they searched for the attacker.
Then, on the A16 highway near the English Channel port of Calais, police stopped what Prime Minister Edouard Philippe called the “principal suspect.” Images of the arrest scene showed emergency vehicles surrounding a black BMW with a damaged windshield, on a cordoned-off highway in the midst of verdant fields.
Police officers opened fire during the arrest to subdue the man, and the suspect was injured along with an officer hit by a stray police bullet, a judicial official said.
The suspect was hospitalized, the official said, but his condition wasn’t immediately clear.
One police official said the suspect may be an illegal North African immigrant in his 30s, while another said he was an Algerian with French residency papers. The government and prosecutors would not release information about his identity.
Heavily armed, masked police searched a building believed linked to the attacker in the Paris suburb of Bezons on Wednesday night.
The defense minister said she received “reassuring” news about the condition of the injured soldiers, and that their lives aren’t in danger.
The soldiers were from the 35th infantry regiment and served in Operation Sentinelle, created to guard prominent French sites after a string of deadly Islamic extremist attacks in 2015.
A witness to the car attack, Nadia LeProhon, was startled by a loud crash outside her building and rushed outside her seventh-floor window to see two soldiers on the ground. Other soldiers ran after a speeding car, shouting “After him! Follow that car!”
“I’ll never forget that scream – a scream of pain and distress,” she told The Associated Press.
Resident Jean-Claude Veillant said he saw two uniformed soldiers on the ground. “It was horrible,” he said, adding that both soldiers appeared to be in bad shape and one of them was unconscious.
The street is normally protected by retractable posts that are removed when vehicles move in and out, so the driver must have known exactly when to strike, Veillant said. “They must’ve really planned this,” he said.
Counterterrorism prosecutors opened an investigation on potential charges of attempted murder of security forces in connection with a terrorist enterprise, the Paris prosecutor’s office said.
Philippe, the prime minister, said that despite a sustained “high threat” against France, the government is sticking to plans to lift a 21-month state of emergency.
Speaking to lawmakers, he insisted that a new bill enshrining permanent counterterrorism measures would be enough to replace the state of emergency, imposed after deadly Islamic extremist attacks in November 2015. The bill is currently under parliamentary debate, ahead of an expected end to the state of emergency on Nov. 1.
Macron discussed the attack at a security meeting Wednesday and at a weekly Cabinet meeting.
Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Thomas Adamson, Elaine Ganley and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.