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Train attack: 4 men receive France's highest honour

Three Americans and a British man who took down a heavily armed man on a passenger train speeding through Belgium have received France's top honour.

'Why would he want to kill anyone?' father of accused gunman says as son questioned by authorities

France's highest honour awarded to 4 men who helped thwart train attack

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5 years agoVideo
2:19
Legion of Honour medal presented to 3 Americans and a Briton who tackled a heavily armed gunman on board train bound for Paris 2:19

Three Americans and a Briton who tackled an attacker who had guns and ammunition prevented carnage on the high-speed train carrying 500 passengers to Paris, France's president said Monday, presenting the men with the Legion of Honour and praising them as an example of the need for action when faced with terrorism.

French President François Hollande said the two Americans who first tackled the gunman were soldiers, "but on Friday, you were simply passengers. You behaved as soldiers, but also as responsible men."

From left, U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley, U.S. Airman Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and U.S. National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos attend a news conference where they were applauded for subduing an armed man on a train. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)
Hollande then pinned the Legion of Honour medal on U.S. Airman Spencer Stone, U.S. National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and their longtime friend, Anthony Sadler, who subdued the gunman as he moved through the train with an assault rifle strapped to his bare chest. British businessman Chris Norman, who also jumped into the fray, also received the medal.

The men showed "that faced with terror, we have the power to resist. You also gave a lesson in courage, in will and thus in hope," Hollande said.

"Since Friday, the entire world admires your courage, your sangfroid, your spirit of solidarity. This is what allowed you to with bare hands — your bare hands — subdue an armed man. This must be an example for all, and a source of inspiration," Hollande said, adding a "veritable carnage" was avoided.

Gunman's father speaks out

Meanwhile, the gunman, identified as 26-year-old Moroccan Ayoub El-Khazzani, has been detained and is being questioned by French counterterrorism police near Paris.

El-Khazzani is on a French list of around 5,000 people who are documented as being a potential militant Islamist threat and was classified as a high risk, according to a source close the investigation.

His father, Mohammed El-Khazzani, was quoted by Spanish newspaper El Mundo as saying he had not spoken to his son since he left the Spanish port town of Algeciras for France in 2014.

"They are saying Ayoub is a terrorist, but I simply can't believe it," said El-Khazzani, 64, a scrap merchant who lives in the poor El Saladillo district of Algeciras with his wife and some of his six children.

"Why would he want to kill anyone? It makes no sense," he said of his son. "The only terrorism he is guilty of is terrorism for bread. He doesn't have enough money to feed himself properly."

El-Khazzani's lawyer, Sophie David, told Le Monde newspaper the gunman is ill-educated, emaciated and told her he had spent the past six months travelling between Belgium, Germany and Austria, as well as France and Andorra. She said he told her he only intended to rob the train with a cache of guns he came across in a public garden near the train station and is "dumbfounded" that it is being treated as an act of terrorism.

Standing still vs. taking action

Norman, speaking in French after receiving the medal, said the incident was less a question of heroism than survival.

"I hope this doesn't happen to you, but I ask you to really think: OK, what will I do if this happens? Am I going to simply stand still or am I going to try to be active if the situation presents itself?" he said.

The Americans, casual in vacation-style polo shirts and khakis against the backdrop of the highly formal presidential palace, appeared slightly overwhelmed as they received France's highest honour.

France train attack: American heroes describe ordeal

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5 years agoVideo
1:51
Americans who overpowered a gunman on a train in France describe the incident at a news conference in Paris 1:51
His arm in a sling and his eye bruised, Stone, 23, has said he was coming out of a deep sleep when the gunman appeared.

Skarlatos, a 22-year-old U.S. National Guardsman recently back from Afghanistan, "just hit me on the shoulder and said 'Let's go,"' Stone said. 

He added another man, who is French and whose name has not been disclosed, "deserves a lot of the credit" because he was the first one to try to stop the gunman.

After the medals ceremony, Stone and Skarlatos went to Germany, where Stone was to receive further treatment at a U.S. Army hospital, said Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis.

Stone thanked the doctors who reattached his thumb, which was almost severed by the gunman, who was armed with a box cutter, a pistol and a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle.

With files from Reuters

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