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Arrest after a car rams soldiers in suspected terror attack near Paris

Security forces and emergency vehicles surround a car on a highway between Boulogne-sur-Mer and Calais, northern France, on Wednesday. Picture by AP
Angela Charlton and Raphael Satter

A MAN was arrested after a car was rammed into a group of soldiers near Paris, injuring six of them.

It is unclear what motivated the driver, who was taken to hospital with bullet wounds after a calculated morning ambush and hours-long police chase.

But authorities said he deliberately accelerated his BMW into a cluster of soldiers in what prosecutors are investigating as a potential terrorist attack.

President Emmanuel Macron's government painted the incident in the suburb of Levallois-Perret as proof of the need to approve a new security law that critics fear infringes on liberties and puts the country in a permanent state of emergency.

Wednesday's attack caused no deaths and hurt no civilians, but still set nerves on edge - the seventh attempted attack on security forces guarding France this year alone.

While others have targeted prominent sites like the Eiffel Tower, Wednesday morning's attack hit the leafy, relatively affluent suburb of Levallois-Perret that is home to France's main intelligence service, the DGSI, and its counter-terrorism service.

"We know it was a deliberate act," Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said.

Defence Minister Florence Parly called it a reminder that extra security measures imposed in recent years are "more necessary than ever".

On a quiet morning, the suspect was seen waiting in a black car in a cul-de-sac near the Levallois city hall and a building used as a staging point for soldiers in France's Sentinelle operation to protect prominent sites, according to two police officials.

A group of soldiers emerged from the building to board vehicles for a new shift when the car sped up and rammed into them, its force hurling the soldiers against their van, according to one official.

The interior minister said the car first approached slowly then sped up about five metres from its target.

A nearby resident described an ear-piercing scream of pain, then soldiers chasing after the fleeing car.

Authorities checked video surveillance of the area and police fanned out and stopped numerous cars as they searched for the attacker. Most were released.

Then, on the A16 highway near the English Channel port of Calais, police stopped what the prime minister called the "principal suspect".

Images of the arrest scene showed emergency vehicles surrounding a black BMW with a damaged windscreen, on a cordoned-off highway in the countryside.

Police officers opened fire during the arrest to subdue the man, and the suspect was injured along with an officer hit by a stray police bullet, according to a judicial official.

Heavily armed, masked police searched a building believed linked to the attacker in the Paris suburb of Bezons on Wednesday night. His identity was not released.

The defence minister said she received "reassuring" news about the condition of the injured soldiers, and that their lives are not in danger.

The soldiers were from the 35th infantry regiment and served in Operation Sentinelle, created to guard prominent French sites after a string of deadly Islamic extremist attacks in 2015.

A witness to the car attack, Nadia LeProhon, was startled by a loud crash outside her building and rushed outside her seventh-floor window to see two soldiers on the ground.

Other soldiers ran after a speeding car, shouting "After him Follow that car".

"I'll never forget that scream - a scream of pain and distress," she said.

Resident Jean-Claude Veillant said he saw two uniformed soldiers prone on the ground when he came down to the entrance of his 13-story building.

"It was horrible," he said, adding that both soldiers appeared to be in bad shape and one of them was unconscious.

The street is normally guarded by posts that are removed when vehicles move in and out, so the driver must have known exactly when to strike, Mr Veillant said.

"They must've really planned this," he added.

Counter-terrorism prosecutors opened an investigation on potential charges of attempted murder of security forces in connection with a terrorist enterprise, the Paris prosecutor's office said.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that despite a sustained "high threat" against France, the government is sticking to plans to lift a 21-month state of emergency.

Speaking to politicians, he insisted that a new bill enshrining permanent counter-terrorism measures would be enough to replace the state of emergency, imposed after deadly Islamic extremist attacks in November 2015.

The bill is currently under parliamentary debate, ahead of an expected end to the state of emergency on November 1.

President Macron discussed the attack at a security meeting on Wednesday and at a weekly Cabinet meeting, but has not commented publicly on what happened.


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