Rooftop snipers, police in black armoured gear and hovering helicopters lent a small French town near Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport where the Charlie Hebdo massacre suspects were holed up the air of a warzone Friday.
Businesses in Dammartin-en-Goele, home to about 8,000 people, shuttered, leaving the streets deserted except for lines of police vehicles and units of heavily armed officers.
Masked and helmeted troopers with automatic weapons were seen peering out of a blue police helicopter hovering overhead.
“The whole zone is surrounded. We are confined to our homes. We can hear helicopters and there’s one currently hovering over my house,” Michel Carn, a resident, said.
The forces’ focus — like the entire country’s — was on a printing business in an industrial park on the town’s northeastern outskirts, where the two brothers suspected of killing 12 people during an Islamist attack on the magazine Wednesday were surrounded.
Inside the brothers, who had evaded police in a two-day manhunt following France’s worst terrorist attack in decades, held an employee hostage.
A little earlier, salesman Didier did not see anything amiss when he arrived at CTD printers for a business meeting, until he met a man at the door dressed in black and carrying what appeared to be a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
He’d stumbled right into one of France’s most wanted men as well as his hostage, he told France Info radio.
“When I arrived, my client came out with an armed man who said he was from the police. My client told me to leave so I left,” Didier said.
He identified the man he was to meet as Michel. “I shook Michel’s hand and I shook the hand of one of the terrorists,” he told the radio.
Reflecting the extraordinary atmosphere in France now, Didier said he almost believed that the armed man in black was a policeman.
But when the man told him, “‘Leave, we don’t kill civilians anyhow’, that really struck me,” he said. “So I decided to call the police. I guess it was one of the terrorists.”
– Take cover –
Residents described their terror at the sudden transformation of their small town.
“It happened very, very quickly. We saw helicopters and suddenly we saw CRS (elite police) all around us. We started to panic a bit,” said Stephane, 45, who works in a hazardous materials business.
“They just gave us enough time to grab something warm to wear outside. Now we’re waiting,” he said.
A 60-year-old woman said her daughter worked close to the hostage scene.
“My daughter works at the food shop, in the area where the terrorists are hiding. The business where she works is being protected by GIGN (police commandos). They told them to turn out the lights and take cover,” she said.
“My daughter told me: ‘Don’t be scared mummy, we’re well protected. She was calm but me, I’m scared. I’m really scared,” the woman said, sobbing.
Marcel Bayeul, a local union official, said there were snipers on the roofs of a warehouse in the industrial park. “Our workers are protected,” he said.
But few really felt safe.
The town mayor’s office appealed on its Internet site for residents to stay behind closed doors. Nearby schools were evacuated, deepening the sense of siege.
“Ambulances are here, firemen are here and everything is ready,” the deputy mayor, Jean-Pierre Mateo, said. “We hope the ambulances won’t be needed.”