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Driver sparks terror scare in France as country mourns

French premier Edouard Philippe (R) was present as family members paid their last respects at a funeral service for the three people killed in a terrorist attack in the town of Trebes on March 29
AFP

Varces-Allières-et-Risset (France) (AFP) – A driver who threatened a group of soldiers out jogging in southeast France on Thursday sparked a major terror scare as the country mourned the victims of an Islamist shooting spree last week.

A spokesman for the army claimed the driver had first shouted at a group of soldiers at around 8 am (0600 GMT) in Varces-Allieres-et-Risset, near Grenoble, and then tried to run down another group returning to their barracks from a jog.

But after a full day’s investigation, local prosecutor Jean-Yves Coquillat told reporters that “this is not a terror case, very clearly”, suggesting the driver had merely swerved towards the servicemen, rather than attempting to hit them.

The suspect, a 23-year-old with a long criminal record, was later arrested in a state of drunkenness, but would face charges for violence and perhaps threatening behaviour, rather than attempted murder.

The incident came with France on edge after a jihadist rampage in the towns of Carcassonne and Trebes last week where a 25-year-old gunman killed four people, including a policeman who took the place of a hostage in a supermarket siege.

The people of Trebes paid an emotional farewell to three local victims at a ceremony in the square of the sleepy town on Thursday, held a day after a national tribute to hero policeman Arnaud Beltrame in Paris led by President Emmanuel Macron.

“You fell under the bullets of terrorism and took with you the insouciance of a little town in Occitanie where no one expected to ever experience such happenings,” Trebes Mayor Eric Menassi told mourners at the gathering attended by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

– Security forces under fire –

Security forces have been repeatedly targeted during the string of jihadist attacks that have claimed the lives of over 240 people around France in the past three years.

At least six security force members have been killed during that period.

In last week’s attack, Moroccan-born Radouane Lakdim fired at a group of policemen returning from a jog before storming the Super U store and shooting dead two people. He also killed the passenger of a car he hijacked in Carcassonne.

Beltrame intervened during the supermarket siege to take the place of a cashier Lakdim was using as a human shield. 

But after three hours of negotiations the gunman, who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group, slit Beltrame’s throat before himself being shot dead by police.

Paying tribute to Beltrame at a national ceremony in Paris on Wednesday, President Emmanuel Macron said his act of self-sacrifice would “remain etched in French hearts”.

Lakdim, who had a criminal record for weapons and drugs offences, was on a watchlist of suspected radicals, but authorities had concluded that he did not pose a threat.

His 18-year-old girlfriend, a radicalised Muslim convert, has been charged with being part of a terrorist conspiracy.

Other deadly assaults on police include the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris in January 2015, in which two officers were killed, and the fatal April 2017 shooting of a policeman on the Champs Elysees.

The army and police have also been targeted in several non-deadly attacks.

In August 2017, a man ploughed his car into a group of soldiers on anti-terror patrol in the western Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret, injuring six people.

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