PARIS (AP) — A suspect shot dead by police after the gruesome beheading of a history teacher in an attack near Paris was an 18-year-old Chechen, officials said Saturday.
France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office said that authorities investigating the horrific killing of Samuel Paty in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine on Friday have also arrested nine suspects, including the grandfather, parents and 17-year-old brother of the attacker.
Paty had discussed caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad with his class, leading to threats and a complaint from a parent, police officials said. Islam prohibits images of the prophet, considering that they lead to idolatry. The officials could not be named because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations.
The French anti-terrorism prosecutor opened an investigation for murder with a suspected terrorist motive, the prosecutor’s office said.
French leaders offered messages of sadness but also of hope in the hours after the drama.
“We’ll pick ourselves up together, thanks to our spirit of solidarity,” said Laurent Brosse, mayor of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, at a news conference Saturday.
“We are all affected, all touched by this vile assassination,” said Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer in a video message.
A police official said the suspect in Friday’s attack armed was shot dead about 600 meters (yards) from where Paty died. He was armed with a knife and an airsoft gun — which fires plastic pellets — and police opened fire after he failed to respond to orders to put down his arms, and acted in a threatening manner. The official also could not be named because of the ongoing investigations.
French President Emmanuel Macron arrived quickly at the school on Friday night to denounce what he called an “Islamist terrorist attack.” He urged the nation to stand united against extremism.
“One of our compatriots was murdered today because he taught … the freedom of expression, the freedom to believe or not believe,” Macron said.
The presidential Elysee Palace announced Saturday that there will be a national ceremony on a future date in homage to Paty, about whom few details have so far emerged.
In a video posted recently on Twitter, a man describing himself as the father of a student claimed that Paty had shown an image of a naked man and told students it was “the prophet of the Muslims.”
Before showing the images, the teacher asked Muslim children to raise their hand and leave the room because he planned to show something shocking, the man said. The AP has not been able to independently confirm these claims.
“What was the message he wanted to send these children? What is this hate?” the man asked.
Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim Russian republic in the North Caucasus. Two wars in the 1990s triggered a wave of emigration, with many Chechens heading for western Europe. France has offered asylum to many Chechens since the Russian military waged war against Islamist separatists in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s.
France has seen occasional violence involving its Chechen community in recent months, believed linked to local criminal activity and score-settling.
It is the second time in three weeks that terror has struck France linked to caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Last month, a young man from Pakistan was arrested after attacking two people with a meat cleaver outside the former offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
The weekly was the target of a deadly newsroom attack in 2015, and it republished caricatures of the prophet this month to underscore the right to freedom of information as a trial opened linked to that attack.
Friday’s terror attack came as Macron’s government works on a bill to address Islamic radicals, who authorities claim are creating a parallel society outside the values of the French Republic.