Paris airport attacker had long criminal record

Kim Willsher in Paris
French police officers at Orly airport on Saturday after Zied Ben Belgacem was shot dead by soldiers. Photograph: Jacques Witt/SIPA/Rex/Shutterstock

The Paris airport attacker who tried to take a soldier hostage before being shot dead had a long criminal record, French anti-terror officials have said.

Zied Ben Belgacem shot and wounded a police officer in northern Paris before travelling across the city to Orly airport, where he was killed after holding a gun to the soldier’s head. He had been on a security watchlist.

Paris prosecutor François Molins said Belgacem had grabbed the female soldier from behind at 8.22am. He placed his left arm across her throat and put a 9mm pellet gun pistol against her temple.

Pulling her back and using her as a human shield, he ordered her two male colleagues to put down their weapons and raise their hands telling them: “I am here to die for Allah ... in any case there will be deaths”.

The reservist, said to be in her 20s, fought back and the man forced her to her knees as he attempted to wrest her Famas assault rifle from her.

He initially succeeded before she grabbed it back; then he snatched it a second time. As she dropped to the ground, her two colleagues were able to shoot him dead.

The soldiers were part of the Sentinelle special forces, an elite military group installed around France to protect sensitive sites after a string of deadly extremist attacks.

Molins said: “The struggle lasted two minutes. He struggled to get the [soldier’s] weapon. He did not give up.” The prosecutor praised the “sang-froid, control and efficiency” of the soldiers.

Belgacem, 39, a French national, had a long criminal record, Molins said, mostly for drug dealing, armed robbery, theft and receiving stolen goods. He had spent some time in prison where he is believed to have been radicalised. He was known to the intelligence services for his links to radical Islamists, Molins said.

Phone records showed Belgacem had called a relative before the Orly attack telling them, “I have done something stupid ... ”

Prosecutors said the suspect’s house was among scores searched in November 2015 in the immediate aftermath of terror attacks in Paris, in which 130 people were killed. Those searches targeted people with suspected radical leanings. The suspect’s father and brother were detained by police for questioning on Saturday.

The French president, François Hollande, said the investigation would determine whether the Orly attacker “had a terrorist plot behind him”.

The airport shooting follows a similar incident last month at the Louvre museum in central Paris.

France remains under a state of emergency following the attack on the Bataclan music venue in November 2015 in which jihadi gunmen killed 90 people, and the Nice truck attack last July that claimed the lives of 84 people and injured hundreds more.

On a visit to Paris on Saturday, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met survivors of the Bataclan attack, praising their bravery and the “amazing progress” of their recovery. A Kensington Palace spokesman said the royal visit was unaffected by the investigation.

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