Machete-wielding man shot outside Louvre Museum in Paris
Attack came just hours before Paris finalized bid for the 2024 Olympics
Paris was plunged into panic Friday — again — when soldiers guarding the Louvre Museum shot an attacker who lunged at them with two machetes and shouted "Allahu akbar!" as the historic landmark went into lockdown.
The threat appeared to quickly recede after the assailant was subdued, but it cast a new shadow over the city just as tourism was beginning to rebound after a string of deadly attacks. Coming just hours before Paris finalized its bid for the 2024 Olympics, it also renewed questions about security in the City of Light.
The soldiers' quick action put an end to what French President François Hollande said was "no doubt" a terrorist attack at one of Paris's most iconic tourist attractions.
French prosecutor François Molins said the assailant was believed to be a 29-year-old Egyptian who had been living in the United Arab Emirates, though his identity has not yet been formally confirmed.
Attacker in life-threatening condition
"Everything shows that the assailant was very determined," Molins told a news conference. The attacker was shot four times and is in a life-threatening condition, he said.
Anti-terrorism prosecutors took charge of the investigation as police carried out raids near the tree-lined Champs-Elysées linked to the attack, which came two months after authorities carried out a special anti-terrorism exercise around the Louvre.
Molins said the attacker was not carrying any identity papers, but investigators used his cellphone and a national data base of visa applicants containing their photos and fingerprints to determine that he was a resident of the United Arab Emirates who arrived in Paris on a tourist visa on Jan. 26.
Two days later the suspect bought two military machetes at a gun store in Paris, the prosecutor said. He also paid €1,700 (about $2,400 Cdn) for a one-week stay at an apartment in the chic 8th arrondissement of the French capital, near the Champs-Elysées.
Targeted shopping mall
In the apartment, police found an Egyptian passport and €965 ($1,355 Cdn), as well as a residence permit, driver's licence and a credit card all issued from the UAE, Molins said. He said the suspect's return flight to Dubai was scheduled for Sunday.
Friday's attack targeted an entrance to a shopping mall that extends beneath the sprawling museum, a medieval former royal palace now home to the Mona Lisa and hundreds of other masterpieces.
Waving two machetes over his head, the assailant lunged at the soldiers patrolling in the mall, shouting "Allahu akbar!" or "God is great!" Molins said.
One soldier fought him off and was slightly injured in the scalp. Another soldier fell to the ground as the assailant tried to slash him, then opened fire, shooting the attacker in the stomach. When that didn't stop him, the soldier fired three more time, gravely wounding him. The backpack the man was carrying contained cans of spray paint, but no explosives, Molins said.
Tourists led to windowless rooms
The 1,200 people inside the Louvre — one of the world's biggest tourist attractions — were first shuttled into windowless rooms as part of a special security protocol before being evacuated from the building. The museum in central Paris remained closed for the rest of Friday but will reopen on Saturday, Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay told reporters.
Hollande, speaking at a news conference in Malta where he was attending a European Union summit, said that while the Louvre incident was quickly contained, the overall threat to France remains. He said the incident showed the need for the increased security patrols deployed around France since attacks in 2015.
Those patrols — numbering about 3,500 soldiers in the Paris area — were deployed following the January 2015 attacks on Paris's satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and reinforced after the November 2015 bomb-and-gun attacks that left 130 people dead at the city's Bataclan concert hall and other sites. The country has been under a state of emergency since.
Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux praised the soldiers, saying "to wear a uniform, as we can see in the propaganda of those who want to attack us, is to be a target."
Restaurant worker Sanae Hadraoui, 32, was waiting for breakfast at a McDonald's in the Louvre's restaurant complex when she heard the first gunshot, followed by another and then a couple more.
"I hear a shot. Then a second shot. Then maybe two more. I hear people screaming, 'Evacuate! Evacuate!"' she said. "They told us to evacuate. I told my colleagues at the McDonald's. We went downstairs and then took the emergency exit."