Police question parents, friend of Chechnya-born Paris attacker

Investigators working to understand why a 20-year-old French citizen born in the Russian republic of Chechnya went on a stabbing rampage in central Paris have detained the dead suspect's parents and a friend, French officials say.

Man who killed 1, injured 4 'just kept walking around with his knife in his bloodied hands'

Police guard the scene of the knife attack, which took place around 9 p.m. Saturday in the Opéra district of Paris. (Reuters)

Investigators working to understand why a 20-year-old French citizen born in the Russian republic of Chechnya went on a stabbing rampage in central Paris detained the dead suspect's parents and a friend Sunday, French officials said.

Counterterrorism investigators want to know if the assailant, identified by Chechnya's leader as Khamzat Azimov, had help or co-conspirators. The attacker killed a 29-year-old man and wounded four other people with a knife before police fatally shot him Saturday night.

The suspect was on a police watch list for radicalism, a judicial official not authorized to speak publicly about the case told The Associated Press. But he had a clean criminal record and did not know his victims, Interior Ministry spokesman Frédéric de Lanouvelle said.

Forensic and police officers stand in Monsigny street in central Paris after one person was killed and several injured by a man armed with a knife, who was shot dead by police. (Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images)

The parents were detained in Paris's northern 18th district and the friend was detained in the eastern French city of Strasbourg on Sunday afternoon, the judicial official said.

French media reported Sunday that Azimov had lived in Strasbourg, which is 490 kilometres from Paris. It was unclear if he was residing with his parents in the French capital when he carried out the attack.

Witnesses reported hearing the man shouting "Allahu akbar," the Arabic phrase for "God is great," during the attack that happened at about 9 p.m. in a lively area near the Palais Garnier opera house.

ISIS 'soldier'

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed the attacker was one of its "soldiers" three hours later, but provided no evidence to back the claim or details about his identity.

The SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S. organization that monitors online postings by militants, said Sunday that the ISIS's Amaq news agency had released a video of a man who appears to be the Paris knifing suspect urging French citizens to pressure their government if they want attacks to end.

French officials have not verified if the assailant is the person featured in the video, which was presumably released posthumously. The man in the video speaks in French and his face is covered except for his eyes.

He blames France for its role in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS and says: "If you want it [attacks] to end, pressure your government."

The assailant was listed in a nationwide database of thousands of people suspected of links to radicalism, according to the judicial official. Extremists behind multiple attacks in France in recent years have turned out to be on the watch list. 

The official said the assailant, born in 1997, had French nationality but was born in the largely Muslim Russian republic of Chechnya, where extremism has long simmered.

'He was only born in Chenya'

Chechnya's president insisted Sunday that France bears responsibility for the knifings, pointing out that Azimov only held a Russian passport until he was 14 years old.

"I consider it necessary to state that all responsibility for the fact that Khazmat Azimov went on the road of crime lies completely with the authorities of France," Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said. "He was only born in Chechnya, and his growing up, the formation of his personality, his views and persuasions occurred in French society."

The attacker targeted five people and then fled, according to Paris police and a witness. When police officers arrived minutes later, he threatened them and was shot dead, police union official Yvan Assioma said. Several witnesses said the attacker ran directly toward police.

The attack happened along Rue Monsigny in the second arrondissement of Paris. (CBC)

Bar patrons and opera-goers described surprise and confusion, and being ordered to stay inside while the police operation was underway on rue Monsigny in the lively 2nd arrondissement, or district, of the French capital.

"I was working in the restaurant and suddenly I heard a woman screaming ... he came and attacked her," said Jonathan, a witness working nearby who wouldn't provide his last name. "That s when the panic started, everyone started screaming and trying to reach our restaurant. ... The attacker just kept walking around with his knife in his bloodied hands."

"Police were quickly on the scene, in less than five minutes. They encircled him and he tried to attack them with a knife but they shot him down," he told reporters.

DNA identification

A police official said the assailant didn't have identity documents with him during Saturday's attack but was identified thanks to DNA. His parents were picked up for questioning. 

Among the injured was a 34-year-old man from Luxembourg, the foreign ministry of the small country north of France said in a statement. The four people injured are out of life-threatening danger, French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said.

Collomb held a special security meeting Sunday to address the Paris attack. 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would lend a hand in the investigation.

"The French authorities with all the intelligence help the United States can provide will do our best to unpack this in the coming hours," Pompeo said Sunday on Fox News. 

The ISIS Aamaq news agency said the assailant carried out the attack in response to the group's calls for supporters to target members of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS military coalition. France's military has been active in the coalition since 2014, and ISIS adherents have killed more than 200 people in France in recent years.

The Russian Embassy in France said that they have asked French authorities for more information on the attacker. Some refugees fleeing wars in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s settled in France, but this country has not seen a high-profile attack by Chechens in the past.

Two Chechen brothers were behind the deadly bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013.​