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Manhunt continues for assailant who stabbed French soldier in neck

Police officers stand near the spot where a French soldier was stabbed in the neck in the busy commercial district of La Defense, outside Paris, on Saturday. (Remy de la Mauviniere/AP)

French police pursued a nationwide manhunt Sunday for a tall, bearded assailant who wounded a uniformed soldier in the neck with a box cutter in what authorities said was an attempted assassination.

The 23-year-old soldier was reported to be out of danger after being transported to a nearby military hospital. But the attack sent a shudder through the French capital because it recalled the gory killing of a soldier in the streets of London on Wednesday, allegedly by a pair of homegrown Muslim extremists, an act that the British government called terrorism.

Initial reports described the lone attacker as wearing a North African-style robe called a djellaba during the assault Saturday evening. But the district prosecutor, Robert Gelli, said the man was wearing a black sweater and black trousers as security cameras monitored him fleeing into the crowd at a subway and train entrance plaza.

“He left without saying a word,” Gelli told French television.

President Francois Hollande, in a televised statement from Ethiopia, where he was on a state visit, urged security authorities to “look at all the possibilities” as they investigate the assault, which Interior Minister Manuel Valls said was an attempt to kill the soldier.

The attack took place at the La Defense business center in the Paris suburbs, about a mile west of the Arc de Triomphe. Military patrols have been deployed for months in transit centers around Paris and other French cities as part of an antiterrorism plan called Vigipirate.

The patrols usually comprise several soldiers wearing camouflage and armed with French-made FAMAS automatic rifles. There was no word on what other members of the patrol did or whether anybody fired at the assailant.

French authorities have warned for months that the country is in danger of a terrorist attack in reprisal for its military intervention in January against Islamist jihadists in northern Mali. Several thousand French soldiers remain in Mali pending the arrival of a U.N. and African peace-maintenance force.

Islamist guerrillas attacked a French uranium mine at Arlit in northern Niger last week, as well as a Nigerien military base, killing two dozen Nigerien soldiers. French special forces intervened the next day, killing several guerrillas, to liberate hostages at the base.

Internet postings said the attacks were carried out by MUJAO, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, in coordination with Those Who Sign in Blood, a splinter group of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Belmokhtar, a one-eyed guerrilla leader and smuggler, was reported killed during the French offensive in Mali. But according to the postings, he planned the attacks in Niger and described them as revenge for the French operation in Mali.



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