French anti-terrorism investigators are hunting for a bearded man who was reported to have been praying before he stabbed a French soldier outside a busy train terminal.
The man, described as tall and athletic, was spotted on CCTV at the station underneath the business district at La Défense just before the attack on Private First Class Cédric Cordier. The 25-year-old was stabbed in the neck with a knife or box cutter as he patrolled the shopping concourse on Saturday evening. The suspect fled the area after the incident but detectives said they had obtained “high quality images” of him.
“The photos were shown to the two other soldiers who were patrolling with the victim and to four witnesses to the aggression,” an official source told Le Parisien newspaper. “They recognised the attacker.”
Anti-terrorism officers were going through their records of Islamic fundamentalist groups to try to identify the assailant, the paper reported.
Another source told Le Parisien that the attacker had stopped to pray before stabbing Cordier.
“He was filmed in the process of praying near where the attack happened. After the attack we see him leave the La Défense business centre. A bag that he was carrying was found on the first floor of the centre,” the paper claimed.
Inside the bag, police found a pullover, a knife in a case, a second, empty knife case, and a bottle of orange juice that had been opened.
“All of the objects have been tested for DNA,” he told Le Parisien.
Cordier left hospital on Monday morning, but is said to be traumatised by the attack, carried out three days after British soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death by two men in Woolwich, south-east London.
Until now French ministers and officials have insisted there is no evidence of a link between the London and Paris attacks.
Manuel Valls, the French interior minister, said there were elements that had led investigators to believe the attack on Cordier could be an act of terrorism and that police were now pursuing serious leads.
France has been on high alert since its military operation to drive Islamic extremists out of Mali began in January, sparking threats of reprisals from the North African branch of al-Qaida.
On 7 May, a gendarme in the Isère region was injured after a man entered a gendarmerie and pulled out a knife shouting “Allah is great” before stabbing the officer three times in the neck, the forearm and the leg. The attacker, reported to have recently returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca, was shot in the legs and taken to hospital and is under investigation for attempted murder.
Detectives allegedly found Islamic fundamentalist literature at his home.