TREBES, France (AP) — A French police officer who offered himself up to an Islamic extremist gunman in exchange for a hostage has died, raising the death toll in the attack in southern France to four. He was honored Saturday as a national hero of “exceptional courage and selflessness.”
Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, 44, was among the first officers to respond to the attack Friday on the supermarket in the southern French town of Trebes.
Beltrame, who joined the elite police special forces in 2003 and served in Iraq in 2005, had organized a training session in the Aude region in December for just such a hostage situation. At the time, he armed his officers with paintball guns, according to the Depeche du Midi newspaper.
“We want to be as close to real conditions as possible,” he said then.
But when he went inside the supermarket, he gave up his own weapon and volunteered himself in exchange for a female hostage.
Unbeknownst to the Morocco-born hostage-taker, he left his cellphone on so police outside could hear what was happening in the store. They stormed the building when they heard gunshots, officials said. Beltrame was fatally wounded.
In addition to the four people killed by the gunman in his rampage Friday, the attacker was killed by police. Fifteen others were injured.
“Arnaud Beltrame died in the service of the nation to which he had already given so much,” President Emmanuel Macron said. “In giving his life to end the deadly plan of a jihadi terrorist, he fell as a hero.”
French police and soldiers have been a prime target of attacks by extremists, with 10 killed in recent years, including Beltrame. Other victims include three soldiers killed near Toulouse in 2012, three police officers shot to death in 2015, a police couple killed in their home in 2016 and a police officer killed on Paris‘ Champs-Elysees in 2017. Dozens of others have been wounded.
According to Macron’s statement, Beltrame also served as a member of the presidential guard and in 2012 earned one of France’s highest honors, the Order of Merit. He was married with no children.
Cedric Beltrame told RTL radio Saturday that his brother died “a hero.”
“He was well aware he had almost no chance. He was very aware of what he was doing,” Cedric Beltrame said.
Beltrame’s mother told RTL radio that, for her son, “to defend the homeland” was “his reason to live.”
“He would have said to me, ‘I’m doing my job, Mom, nothing more,’” she said.
People were placing flowers in front of the Gendarmerie headquarters in the French medieval city of Carcassone to pay tribute to Lt. Col. Beltrame. Flags at all gendarmeries were ordered to fly at half-staff.
Macron says investigators will focus on establishing how the gunman, identified by prosecutors as Morocco-born Redouane Lakdim, 25, got his weapon and how he became radicalized.
On Friday night, authorities searched a car and the apartment complex in central Carcassonne where Lakdim was believed to live. Two people were detained over alleged links with a terrorist enterprise, one woman close to Lakdim and a friend of his, a 17-year-old male, Paris prosecutor’s office said.
Lakdim was known to police for petty crime and drug dealing. But he was also under surveillance and since 2014 was on the so-called Fiche S list, a government register of individuals suspected of being radicalized but who have yet to perform acts of terrorism.
Despite this, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said there was “no warning sign” that Lakdim would carry out an attack.
The four-hour drama began at 10:13 a.m. when Lakdim hijacked a car near Carcassonne, killing one person in the car and wounding the other, the prosecutor said.
Lakdim then fired six shots at police officers on their way back from jogging near Carcassonne, hitting one in the shoulder, said Yves Lefebvre of the SGP Police-FO police union.
Lakdim then went to a Super U supermarket in nearby Trebes, 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of Toulouse, shooting and killing two people in the market and taking hostages. He shouted “Allahu akbar!” — the Arabic phrase for God is great — and said he was a “soldier of the Islamic State” as he entered the Super U, where about 50 people were inside, Molins said.
Special police units converged on the scene while authorities blocked roads.
“We heard an explosion — well, several explosions,” shopper Christian Guibbert told reporters. “I saw a man lying on the floor and another person, very agitated, who had a gun in one hand and a knife in the other.”
Guibbert said he put his wife, sister-in-law and other shoppers in the meat locker for safety.
The manager of the supermarket, who would identify herself only by her first name, Samia, was in her office when she heard the shots.
“Call the gendarmes,” she told her employees. “There’s a terrorist in the store.”
She said she helped evacuate as many people as possible.
“It was terrifying,” Samia said.
During the standoff, Lakdim requested the release of Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving assailant of the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead. The interior minister suggested, however, that Abdeslam’s release wasn’t a key motive for the attack.
The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said the attacker was responding to the group’s calls to target countries in the U.S.-led coalition carrying out airstrikes against IS militants in Syria and Iraq since 2014. France has been repeatedly targeted because of its participation.
France has been on high alert since a series of extremist attacks in 2015 and 2016 that killed more than 200 people.
Associated Press journalists Elaine Ganley. Thomas Adamson, Samuel Petrequin, Sylvie Corbet, Angela Charlton and Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report from Paris.
This story has been corrected to show dead policeman’s rank was Lt. Col., not Col. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack. The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said the attacker was responding to the group’s calls to target countries in the U.S.-led coalition carrying out airstrikes against IS militants.