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France deploys thousands in hunt for massacre suspects

Update: January, 09/2015 - 10:00

PARIS – France deployed tens of thousands of security forces in the hunt for two brothers accused of killing 12 people in an Islamist attack on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, as the pair spent a second night on the run.

The manhunt came as the head of Britain's domestic spy agency MI5 warned that Islamist militants were planning other "mass casualty attacks against the West" and that intelligence services may be powerless to stop them.

The attacks have sparked a global outpouring of tributes and solidarity. US President Barack Obama was the latest to sign a book of condolence with the message "Vive la France!" as thousands gathered in Paris on a day of national mourning to honour the dead.

In the rural Aisne region northeast of Paris, elite armed police and paramilitary forces backed by helicopters searched a wooded area near where the fugitives had earlier robbed a petrol station and abandoned their getaway car following Wednesday's shooting in the capital.

The brothers were thought to have carried out the attack, the worst in France for half a century, in revenge for the weekly's repeated publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed.

Around 24 hours into the manhunt, the brothers were identified after holding up the petrol station 80km from Paris, before fleeing again, possibly on foot and still armed with at least a Kalashnikov, police said.

Special police units rushed to the scene, where a maximum security alert was declared in addition to the capital.

Officers in heavy black bulletproof vests searched outbuildings, rifles at the ready, under the nervous eyes of local residents.

"I live near the woods," said village resident Roseline, a grandmother.

"I'm afraid. Night is falling and they could be hiding nearby." Islamic State, the militant group sowing terror across swathes of Iraq and Syria, hailed the brothers as "heroes" on its Al-Bayan radio station.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that 88,000 security forces had been mobilised and that an international meeting on terrorism would take place in Paris on Sunday.

'Armed and dangerous'

Arrest warrants were issued for Cherif Kouachi, 32, a known jihadist convicted in 2008 for involvement in a network sending fighters to Iraq, and his 34-year-old brother Said. Both were born in Paris to Algerian parents and were orphaned at an early age.

A senior US administration official said that one of the two brothers was believed to have trained with al-Qaeda in Yemen while another source said that the pair had been on a US terror watch list "for years." The brothers were both flagged in a US database as terror suspects, and also on the no-fly list, meaning they were barred from flying into the United States, the officials said.

Cazeneuve meanwhile said nine people had been detained as part of the operation.

Mourad Hamyd, an 18-year-old suspected of being an accomplice in the attack, handed himself in, police sources said. It was not clear what role, if any, he may have played in the attack. — AFP

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