France warns citizens to stay indoors as violent protests spread in Niger
PARIS – France's embassy in Niger warned French citizens to stay indoors Saturday as violent protests against publication of a Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) cartoon by the French weekly Charlie Hebdo spread in the capital Niamey.
"Be very cautious, avoid going out," the embassy said on its website. Rioters torched churches, threw rocks at police and also ransacked several French-linked businesses, including telephone kiosks run by Orange.
President Francois Hollande also stressed that France was committed to "freedom of expression" after the fresh violence in Niger.
Meanwhile, jittery European nations stepped up security in the wake of last week's attacks in France that claimed 17 lives.
Belgium began deploying hundreds of armed troops to patrol the streets after security forces smashed a suspected Islamist "terrorist" cell planning to kill police officers.
And in London, authorities were mulling "further measures" to protect police "given some of the deliberate targeting of the police we have seen in a number of countries across Europe and the world," said Mark Rowley, head of counter-terrorism for the British police.
British police officers, for the most part unarmed, might be equipped with taser guns as part of reinforced security measures, according to the local press.
Meanwhile, French and Belgian authorities were grilling suspected accomplices both of the Paris gunmen and the alleged "terrorist" cell raided in eastern Belgium.
Belgian police were hunting for the suspected mastermind of the cell, a notorious 27-year-old jihadist who spent time in Syria and who may have prepared the foiled attack from bases in Greece and Turkey, according to local media.
And fresh protests against Charlie Hebdo, targeted in last week's attacks for its depiction of the prophet Mohamed (PBUH), broke out for a second day running in Niger.
Police fired tear gas at around 1,000 youths outside the grand mosque in the capital Niamey, some of whom responded by hurling rocks, a day after a rally against Charlie Hebdo in the country's second city of Zinder left four dead and 45 injured.
On Friday, the protesters set fire to the French cultural centre and three churches in Zinder.
In his first reaction to the protests, President Francois Hollande stressed that France would continue to defend "freedom of expression."
Asked about protesters who burned the French flag, Hollande said: "They have to be punished because when it happens in France, it's intolerable, but also abroad."
"I'm thinking of countries where sometimes they don't understand what freedom of expression is because they have been deprived of it. But also, we have supported these countries in their fight against terrorism," said Hollande as he toured a market in his heartland of Tulle, central France.
Said Kouachi, one of the jihadist brothers who gunned down 12 people at Charlie Hebdo's offices before being cut down by security forces in a siege, has already been buried in secret, it emerged on Saturday.
He was buried Friday in the eastern city of Reims, where he lived for around two years, under heavy police protection and with a handful of family members present, according to a well-informed source.
His grave was unmarked and the name of the cemetery not divulged. His brother Cherif was expected to be buried soon in the Paris suburb of Gennevilliers.
The mayor of Reims, Arnaud Robinet, said he was forced by law to accept the burial but was initially opposed to the gunman being buried in his city.
He feared "a tomb that could become a shrine for people to gather around or a pilgrimage site for fanatics."
Said Kouachi's wife decided not to attend the burial, in order to keep it secret, said her lawyer Antoine Flasaquier.
"She is now relieved that her husband has been buried with discretion and dignity," said the lawyer.
Touring the cheese and meat stands in the Tulle market, Hollande urged his shell-shocked people to pick up where they left off before the worst attacks on French soil in half a century.
His visit was "a message to show that life goes on, that we have come through the ordeal with a great deal of dignity and efficiency."
"We are of course aware that there are still threats ... there were arrests that were carried out in the past few days, but life has to go on and we even need to emerge stronger."
"That's the best response we can give."