At least 100,000 people gathered across France tonight to back an anti-Islamist newspaper whose offices were devastated by a deadly terrorist attack.
Suspected Al Qaeda militants massacred 12 people in Paris today–and among those slaughtered was a police officer as he begged for mercy.
Tonight, thousands of people went to Republique Square near the scene to honour the victims, holding signs reading ‘Je suis Charlie’–‘I am Charlie’.
It came as a massive manhunt was launched to find the masked attackers, who earlier burst into the Charlie Hebdo offices brandishing Kalashnikovs.
They were named as Said Kouachi, 34, his brother Cherif Kouachi, 33, and Hamyd Mourad, 19, from the Paris commuter town of Gennevilliers.
The three suspects were tonight said by Metronews to be all French citizens–a homeless teenage man, and two brothers in their thirties.
There were disputed claims that the three men had been arrested 100 miles away in Reims, following a report by Libération. This could not be verified.
Cherif Kouachi was convicted in 2008 of terrorism charges for helping funnel fighters to Iraq’s insurgency and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Clad all in black with hoods and speaking French, the militants forced one of the cartoonists–at the office with her young daughter–to open the door.
Witnesses said the gunmen shouted ‘we are from the Al Qaeda in Yemen’, and ‘Allahu akbar!’–Arabic for ‘God is great’–as they stalked the building.
They were also said to have yelled ‘the Prophet has been avenged’, during what was France’s deadliest post-war terrorist attack.
The attackers headed straight for the paper’s editor and cartoonist, Stephane Charbonnier, killing him and his police bodyguard.
The security had been recruited to protect him after extremists firebombed the offices in 2011 over a satirical cartoon about the Prophet Mohammed.
A year later, Mr Charbonnier famously dismissed threats against his life, declaring: ‘I would rather die standing than live kneeling.’
The militants also killed three other renowned cartoonists–men who had regularly satirised Islam–and the newspaper’s deputy chief editor.
Despite a shoot-out with armed officers, the gunmen escaped in a hijacked car and remained on the loose this evening.
This left the French capital in virtual lockdown as police and soldiers flooded the streets to join the search.
President Barack Obama offered U.S. help in pursuing the gunmen, saying they had attacked freedom of expression.
But it also emerged that the White House had previously criticised Charlie Hebdo in 2012 over its Prophet Mohammed cartoon.
At the time it had said that the images would be ‘deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory’.
Meanwhile, horrific footage emerged showing an injured police officer slumped on the pavement as two gunmen approached him outside the office.
In an apparent desperate plea for life, the officer is seen slowly raising his hand towards an attacker, who shoots him in the head at point-blank range.
Despite a fierce firefight with police, the men got away in a hijacked car, and, within an hour of the atrocity, appeared to have vanished without trace.
France raised its security alert to the highest level and reinforced protective measures at houses of worship, stores, media offices and transportation.
President Francois Hollande called the bloodbath a ‘barbaric attack against France and against journalists’ and vowed to hunt down those responsible.
Jacques Myard, French MP with opposition party UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), said: ‘We knew something would happen.
‘The (security) services used to say to us it’s not if but when and where. We know that we are at war.
‘The Western nations–like Britain, France, Germany–we are at war.’
The Queen today sent her ‘sincere condolences to the families of those who have been killed’ in the attack.
And Prime Minister David Cameron described the murders as ‘sickening’.
Twitter users responded to the Charlie Hebdo massacre with an outpouring of solidarity using the hashtag #jesuischarlie, which is trending online.
By 4.15pm, nearly five hours after the attack, it had already been tweeted more than 250,000 times, according to one social analytics website.
As well as the AK47 assault rifles, there were also reports of a rocket-propelled grenade being used in the attack.
It took place during the publication’s weekly editorial meeting at around 12pm (11am GMT), meaning all the journalists would have been present.
A young mother and cartoonist, known as ‘Coco’, who survived the massacre told how she had let the suspected Al Qaeda killers into the office.
Corrine Rey said she had returned from picking up her daughter from a nursery when she was confronted by two armed men wearing balaclavas.
‘I had gone to pick up my daughter at day care, arriving in front of the building, where two masked and armed men brutally threatened us,’ said Ms Rey.
‘They said they wanted to go up to the offices, so I tapped in the code,’ said Ms Rey, referring to the digi-code security system on the interphone.
Ms Rey and her daughter hid under a desk, from where they saw two other cartoonists being executed.
‘They shot Wolinski and Cabu,’ she said. ‘It lasted five minutes. I had taken refuge under a desk.’
Ms Rey said the men ‘spoke French perfectly’ and ‘claimed they were ‘Al Qaeda terrorists’.
Gunmen reportedly told another witness: ‘You say to the media, it was Al Qaeda in Yemen.’
A police source told the Liberation newspaper the gunmen were asking for the Mr Charbonnier by name, shouting: ‘Where is Charb? Where is Charb?’
The source added: ‘They killed him then sprayed everyone else.’
Mr Charbonnier was included in a 2013 ‘Wanted Dead or Alive for Crimes Against Islam’ article published by Al Qaeda propaganda magazine Inspire.
The latest tweet published by the newspaper’s official Twitter account earlier in the day featured a cartoon of Abu Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State.
In it, he wishes everyone ‘good health’. Cartoonists Cabu, Tignous and Wolinski were all also reported dead.
Radio France chief executive Mathieu Gilet later announced on Twitter that a contributor, Bernard Maris, was another of the victims.
Meanwhile, there were reports of a car explosion outside a synagogue in Sarcelles, in northern Paris, just hours after the Charlie Hebdo attack.
The blast, at about 1.30pm GMT, is not thought to be connected to the massacre, according to Paris Metro which quoted the mayor of Sarcelles.
A visibly shocked French President François Hollande, speaking live near the scene of the shooting, said: ‘France is today in shock, in front of a terrorist attack.
‘This newspaper was threatened several times in the past and we need to show we are a united country.
‘We have to be firm, and we have to be stand strong with the international community in the coming days and weeks.
‘We are at a very difficult moment following several terrorist attacks. We are threated because we are a country of freedom
‘We will punish the attackers. We will look for the people responsible.’
The offices of the same newspaper were burnt down in a petrol attack in 2011 after running a magazine cover of the Prophet Mohammed as a cartoon character.
At the time, the editor-in-chief, Stephane Charbonnier, said Islam could not be excluded from freedom of the press.
He said: ‘If we can poke fun at everything in France, if we can talk about anything in France apart from Islam or the consequences of Islamism, that is annoying.’
Mr Charbonnier, also known as Charb, said he did not see the attack on the newspaper as the work of French Muslims, but of what he called ‘idiot extremists’.
The cover showed Mohammed saying: ‘100 lashes if you are not dying of laughter’.