French Police Converge on Villages as Charlie Hebdo Attackers Spotted

French police
Members of the French GIPN intervention police forces secure a neighbourhood in Corcy, northeast of Paris January 8, 2015. Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Updated | Armed and masked French anti-terrorism police converged on an area northeast of Paris on Thursday after two brothers suspected of being behind an attack on a satirical newspaper were spotted at a petrol station in the region.

France's prime minister said on Thursday he feared the Islamist militants who killed 12 people could strike again as a manhunt for two men widened across the country. He also raised the terror threat level in the northern Picardie region to its highest level.

A day after the Paris attack, officers carried out house-to-house searches in the village of Corcy, a few miles from a service station where police sources said the brothers were sighted in ski masks. Helicopters flew overhead.

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A member of the French GIPN intervention police forces secure a neighbourhood in Corcy, northeast of Paris, Jan. 8, 2015. Christian Hartmann/Reuters

The fugitive suspects, Said Kouachi and his brother Cherif Kouachi, are French-born sons of Algerian-born parents, both in their early 30s, and already under police surveillance. One was jailed for 18 months for trying to travel to Iraq a decade ago to fight as part of an Islamist cell. Police said they were "armed and dangerous". United States and European sources close to the investigation said on Thursday that one of the brothers, Said Kouachi, was in Yemen in 2011 for a number of months training with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the group's most active affiliates.

A Yemeni official familiar with the matter said the Yemen government was aware of the possibility of a connection between Said Kouachi and AQAP, and was looking into any possible links. U.S. government sources said Said Kouachi and his brother Cherif Kouachi were listed in two U.S. security databases, a highly classified database containing information on 1.2 million possible counter-terrorism suspects, called TIDE, and the much smaller "no fly" list maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, an interagency unit.

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A member of the French GIPN intervention police forces secures a neighbourhood in Corcy, northeast of Paris Jan. 8, 2015. Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Two police sources said that the men were seen armed and wearing cagoules in a Renault Clio car at a petrol station on a secondary road in Villers-Cotterets some 70 kilometers from the French capital. Amid French media reports the men had abandoned their car, Bruno Fortier, the mayor of neighboring Crépy-en-Valois, said helicopters were circling his town and police and anti-terrorism forces were deploying en masse.

"It's an incessant waltz of police cars and trucks," he told Reuters, adding that he could not confirm reports the men were holed up in a house in the area. AFP tweeted that a source had said that Molotov cocktails and jihadist flags had been found in the abandoned vehicle.

A BBC reporter also tweeted a picture showing a police convoy in Crépy-en-Valois, a town northeast from the centre of Paris.

Earlier Thursday morning, AFP reported that the men had been spotted by a manager of a petrol station in the northern Aisne region, who said he "recognised the two men suspected of having participated in the attack against Charlie Hebdo", although this has not been confirmed.

Police have told press that they have located the two men, with some reports saying that a rocket launcher was visible in the back of their car. A security cordon was formed at major roads leading into paris as it was feared they could be returning to the capital.

The brothers grew up in an orphanage in the western city of Rennes after their parents died. The younger brother's jail sentence for trying to fight in Iraq a decade ago, and more recent tangles with the authorities over suspected involvement in militant plots, raised questions over whether police could have done more to watch them.Cherif Kouachi was arrested on Jan. 25, 2005 preparing to fly to Syria en route to Iraq. He served 18 months of a three-year sentence.

"He was part of a group of young people who were a little lost, confused, not really fanatics in the proper sense of the word," lawyer Vincent Ollivier, who represented Cherif in the case, told Liberation daily.

In 2010 he was suspected of being part of a group that tried to break from prison Smain Ali Belkacem, a militant jailed for the 1995 bombings of Paris train and metro stations that killed eight people and wounded 120. The case against Cherif Kouachi was dismissed for lack of evidence.

A third person wanted by police, an 18-year-old man, turned himself into police in Charleville-Mézières near the Belgian border late on Wednesday. A legal source said he was the brother-in-law of one of the brothers. French media quoted friends as saying he was in school at the time of the attack.

In the wake of the killings, authorities tightened security at transport hubs, religious sites, media offices and stores. Police also increased their presence at entry points to Paris.

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French special intervention police conduct a house-to-house search in Longpont, northeast of Paris, Jan. 8, 2015. Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

There were scattered, unconfirmed reports of sightings of the assailants. One police source talked of a type of "psychosis" setting in with various reports and rumors, but police had to take each of them seriously. The defense ministry said it had brought in an additional 200 soldiers from parachute regiments across the country to Paris to take the number of military patrolling the capital's streets to 850.

In Paris, a policewoman was killed in a shootout with a gunman wearing a bulletproof vest on Thursday morning, setting a tense nation further on edge. Police sources were unable to say whether that incident was linked to the previous day's assault at the Charlie Hebdo weekly newspaper, but the authorities opened another terrorism investigation.

Tens of thousands of people attended vigils across France on Wednesday, many wearing badges declaring "Je suis Charlie" in support of the newspaper and the principle of freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo's lawyer Richard Malka said the newspaper would be published next Wednesday with one million copies compared to its usual print run of 60,000.

Muslim leaders condemned the shooting, but some have expressed fears of a rise in anti-Islamic feeling in a country with a large Muslim population. The window of a kebab shop next to a mosque in the town of Villefrance-sur-Saone was blown out by an overnight explosion. Local media said no one was hurt.

French Police Converge on Villages as Charlie Hebdo Attackers Spotted | World