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Man killed at Paris airport likely planned terrorist attack

Travelers are walking back to Orly airport, south of Paris, as flights are gradually resuming, Saturday, March, 18, 2017. Soldiers at Paris' busy Orly Aiport shot and killed a man who wrestled one of their colleagues to the ground and tried to steal her rifle Saturday, officials said. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)

Kamil Zihnioglu/Associated Press

Travelers walked back to Orly airport, south of Paris, as flights resumed after a shooting at the airport.

PARIS — A man who attacked a soldier at Orly Airport outside Paris Saturday was fatally shot in what the Paris prosecutor’s office said it was investigating as a possible act of terrorism. The attack occurred shortly after the man shot at a police officer during a routine traffic stop in a Paris suburb, the French interior minister said.

A Paris prosecutor said French soldiers fired three bursts, eight rounds in all, to kill the attacker who took a member of their patrol hostage at Paris’ Orly Airport and wrested away her assault rifle.

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The prosecutor said the attacker held a pistol to the soldier’s head in the Saturday morning attack and used her as a shield. He wrested away her powerful military-grade assault rifle and wanted to use it to shoot people at the busy Paris airport.

Speaking Saturday night at a news conference, the prosecutor said a Quran was among the items later found on the body of the attacker, Ziyed Ben Belgacem.

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The official said the French-born 39-year-old was flagged for suspected radicalism during a previous spell in prison. The man yelled that he wanted to die in the name of Allah and ‘‘whatever happens, there will be deaths.’’

The shooting at Orly prompted a partial evacuation of the airport, the diversion of all flights and a security sweep to determine whether the assailant had left any explosives at the airport’s two terminals, officials said. Incoming flights were diverted to nearby Charles de Gaulle Airport.

The chain of events started when the man was stopped by police in a routine identity check at 6:50 a.m. in the Paris suburb of Garges-lès-Gonesse, Bruno Le Roux, the interior minister, said. The man fired a pistol loaded with birdshot and fled. One police officer suffered minor injuries.

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The assailant then carjacked a vehicle in Vitry-sur-Seine, about 8 miles north of Orly Airport, and drove to the airport, where he attacked a female soldier who was part of a three-soldier unit patrolling the airport, said Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defense minister. Two soldiers opened fire on the man as he attacked, killing him.

A spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor’s office said Saturday morning that its anti-terrorism unit and the French Intelligence Service had opened an investigation into the events.

Authorities did not release the man’s name, but the spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office said he was 39 and had a long police record, including arrests for robbery and drug-related offenses. She said that police had taken both his brother and father into custody for questioning.

The episode was reminiscent of an attack in February near the Louvre museum that forced the museum to close. In that instance, the attacker, brandishing two long knives, attacked soldiers patrolling in the Carrousel du Louvre, an underground shopping mall between the subway station closest to the museum and one of the museum’s entrances. He injured a soldier before being shot several times.

The episode Saturday came amid a heated presidential election campaign in France, with the first round of voting just five weeks away, on April 23.

Any terrorist attack so close to the election, political analysts suggest, could be seen as an opportunity by the candidates of the far right, Marine Le Pen, and the center right, François Fillion, to berate the current Socialist government and by association Emmanuel Macron, the center-left candidate, who previously was the economy minister, for failing to protect the French people.

The unit attacked at the airport was part of Operation Sentinel, which involves about 7,000 soldiers who patrol public areas in France, including high-profile locations like airports, areas near large tourist attractions and train stations.

The French Interior Ministry confirmed that special operations police officers who also deal with terrorism were at the airport, and asked people in the area to stay away from the security perimeter. Explosives experts were also on the scene and had completed their inspection by noon.

One of Orly’s two terminals, Orly-West, had reopened by 1 p.m., and flights were resuming, according to the Paris Airport Authority. Orly-South, where the attack took place, remained closed so that the prosecutor’s office could collect evidence and complete its investigation.

France continues to be on heightened vigilance after the November 2015 terrorist attacks that killed 130 people, including 90 at the Bataclan nightclub in Paris, and an attack in Nice last July that killed 86 people when the driver of a truck plowed into a crowd of people who had gathered to watch Bastille Day fireworks.

The attack at Orly increases the likelihood that France’s state of emergency, which has been in effect since November 2015, will remain in place. The French justice minister had suggested this past week that it might be possible to lift it.

The top government official in the area of the airport, the prefect of Val-de-Marnes, asked that passengers on their way to Orly stay away for the time being.

Orly is one of two large international airports in the Paris region. It handles most domestic fights and some international ones and served 31.2 million passengers in 2016, according to the Paris Airport Authority.

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