Residents and community leaders flocked to a church service in Trèbes, France, Sunday to pay tribute to the victims of an Islamic State (IS) group shooting spree, including a police officer who was killed after swapping himself with a hostage.
Two days after a gunman claiming allegiance to the IS group killed four people in Trèbes and Carcassonne in southwestern France, survivors of the attack packed the Saint-Etienne-de-Trèbes church for a special Sunday Mass honouring the victims of the assault.
Members of the region’s Muslim community were among those mourning at the special Palm Sunday service. The manager of the supermarket sat in the front row, alongside her husband, the town mayor.
Paying tribute to Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, the heroic gendarme, or police officer, who was slain after swapping himself with a hostage during Friday’s siege at a Trèbes supermarket, the Bishop of Carcassonne and Narbonne Alain Planet hailed the police officer’s “extraordinary devotion”, saying “the whole of France has been touched by this”.
Residents have been laying flowers in front of the Trèbes supermarket where the attacker seized hostages Friday.
The director of the national gendarme service is meeting Sunday in Carcassonne with Beltrame’s widow and French President Emmanuel Macron has also ordered a national memorial for Beltrame.
Leaving a mobile phone on
The 44-year-old was the first policeman to arrive Friday at the supermarket where a gunman, Radouane Lakdim, had shot two civilians at the store and taken others hostage. Lakdim had earlier shot and wounded a police officer out jogging in Carcassonne, around 15 minutes away from Trèbes.
When Beltrame entered the supermarket he left his mobile phone on to allow police who had surrounded the building to listen in.
On hearing gunshots, the police special forces then stormed inside, killing the gunman and recovering Beltrame. The wounded gendarme was rushed to a hospital where he succumbed to his injuries early Saturday.
A life of service
Beltrame, 44, originated from Morbihan, Brittany in western France and had earned numerous military honours and commendations throughout his career. He gained entry into one of the country’s top military academies, Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan, near Paris in 1999. His colleagues and superiors at the school described him as “energetic”, and “devoted to the service”.
After graduating, he joined the gendarmerie in 2003 — a police force which is part of the French military — where he trained for the elite intervention unit, the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN), tasked with counter-terrorism operations. He was also a qualified parachutist. In 2005, he spent two years in Iraq, earning the military cross in 2007. He afterwards returned to France where he worked as part of the elite Republican Guard protecting the Elysée Palace and the president’s residence.
Beltrame was made head of a branch of the gendarmerie in Avranches in Normandy in August 2010 where for four years he led a company of 144 soldiers. He described his time there “as my best command in 18 years of my career”.
For much of his career Beltrame had demonstrated his expertise on the ground, but in 2014 he accepted a post with the French ministry of the environment in Paris. His work involved coordinating activities between the ministerial cabinet and the gendarmerie.
He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 2016.
In a strangely prescient event, Beltrame had in December 2017 organized a training session simulating a real-life attack in a supermarket in the Aude region, where Friday’s attack took place. He had armed his soldiers with paintball guns, according to local newspaper Dépêche du Midi.
“We want to be as close to real conditions as possible,” he told the paper then.
Beltrame had only just married his wife in a civil ceremony and had planned a church wedding for June. He had no children.
Beltrame’s death follows a number of incidents in which policemen in France have been killed or injured in recent years while protecting civilians and patrolling sensitive areas such as airports and train stations.
One such attack occurred when a policeman was killed and two others injured in a shooting on the Champs Élysées in April 2017.
In acknowledging Beltrame’s “service to the nation”, Macron echoed the sentiments of many, saying in a statement: “In giving his life to end the deadly plan of a jihadi terrorist, he fell as a hero.”
The president’s office announced that France would organise a national tribute in Beltrame’s honour.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)