PARIS, FRANCE (NEWS 1130) – A knife-wielding man shouting in Arabic attacked French soldiers on patrol near the Louvre Museum this morning in what officials described as a suspected terror attack. The soldiers first tried to fight off the attacker and then opened fire, shooting him five times.
The attack at an entrance to a shopping mall that extends beneath the museum sowed panic and again highlighted the threat French officials say hangs over the country, which was hit repeatedly by extremist attacks in 2015 and 2016.
A police union official said the attacker was carrying two backpacks and had two machetes. He said the man launched himself at the soldiers when they told him that he couldn’t bring his bags into the Carrousel du Louvre shopping mall underneath the world-famous museum where the Mona Lisa hangs and which went into emergency lock-down.
“That’s when he got the knife out and that’s when he tried to stab the soldier,” said the official, Yves Lefebvre.
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. President Francois Hollande praised the troops’ “courage and determination.”
Anti-terrorism prosecutors took charge of the investigation. There were no immediate details about the identity of the attacker.
The military patrols – numbering about 3,500 soldiers in the Paris area – were instituted following the January 2015 attacks on Paris’ satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and reinforced after Nov. 13 suicide bomb and gun attacks that left 130 people dead at the city’s Bataclan concert hall and other sites.
Friday’s attacker slightly injured one of the soldiers, in the scalp, officials said. Another soldier opened fire, gravely wounding the attacker. “He is wounded 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, he said.
Cadot said a second person who was “acting suspiciously” also was arrested, but appears not to have been linked to the attack.
Restaurant worker Sanae Hadraoui was waiting for breakfast at 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!”
“They told us to evacuate. I told my colleagues at the McDonald’s. We went downstairs and then took the emergency exit.”
Hadraoui, who has worked at the Louvre for seven years, said the evacuation was orderly.
The museum in the center of Paris is one of the French capital’s biggest tourist attractions. Police sealed off entrances and closed the area to vehicles, snarling traffic, and shooed away confused tourists.
The Louvre’s security protocol kicked in, with entrances locked down and visitors who came to admire the paintings and sculptures shepherded into rooms without windows.
Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said about 1,000 people were inside and were held in safe areas before the all-clear was given.
Conor Bakhuizen, 18, who was in the museum on a school trip, said his group was “rushed upstairs really suddenly” and kept in a safe room before they were later slowly let out.
The attack’s timing was poor for Paris, coming just hours before the city was unveiling its completed 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 some three hours later, underscored how the French city has – unwillingly but stoically – been forced to learn to live with the extremist threat. Within hours, French radio stations went back to talking about storms battering the west coast and school holiday traffic.
Exterminator Olivier Majewski says he was just leaving his scooter in the parking lot beneath the Louvre when he saw a crush of people running and screaming “there’s been a terror attack.”
“They were panicked,” he said.
The 53-year-old hid for about 15 minutes before gingerly making his way upstairs.