Twelve people have been shot dead in a terror attack at the offices of a French satirical weekly which angered some Muslims after publishing crude caricatures of Islam’s prophet Mohammed.
Masked gunmen stormed the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, shooting indiscriminately.
The gunmen, who later fled, were heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” – God is greatest – as they opened fire.
It is being reported that three gunmen are on the loose.
Survivor and Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Corinne ``Coco'' Rey has been quoted by French newspaper L'Humanite as saying: ``I had gone to collect my daughter from day care and as I arrived in front of the door of the paper's building two hooded and armed men threatened us.
"They wanted to go inside, to go upstairs. I entered the code. They fired on Wolinski, Cabu ... it lasted five minutes ... I sheltered under a desk... They spoke perfect French... claimed to be from al Qaida.''
The spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor says the editor, Stephane Charbonnier, and a cartoonist for the satirical French newspaper targeted by gunmen are among the 12 people killed in the attack.
Spokeswoman Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre confirmed the deaths of the men who went by the pen names Charb and Cabu.
A police official said two police officers were also among the dead, including one assigned as Charb’s bodyguard after prior death threats against him.
Charlie Hebdo’s website lists “Charb” as its publication director, and “Cabu” as artistic director.
Mr Charbonnier was included in a 2013 Wanted Dead or Alive for Crimes Against Islam article published by Inspire, the terrorist propaganda magazine published by al Qaida.
Charlie Hebdo's editor-in-chief Gerard Biard escaped the carnage because he was in London.
He told France Inter: “I am shocked that people can have attacked a newspaper in France, a secular republic. I don’t understand it.
“I don’t understand how people can attack a newspaper with heavy weapons. A newspaper is not a weapon of war.”
Mr Biard said he did not believe the attack was linked to the magazine’s latest front page, which featured novelist Michel Houellebecq, who has previously sparked controversy with comments about Islam.
And he said the magazine had not received threats of violence: “Not to my knowledge, and I don’t think anyone had received them as individuals, because they would have talked about it. There was no particular tension at the moment.”
Video footage taken by terrified witnesses from windows and on rooftops overlooking the scene showed the terrorists shooting one of their victims, who appears to be in a police uniform, in cold blood at close range as he lay already injured on a pavement of the otherwise deserted Paris street.
French president Francois Hollande said the “terrorist attack” had left France in a state of shock.
He said: “We are looking for the perpetrators of this crime.
“France is today in shock, in front of a terrorist attack.
“This newspaper was threatened several times in the past. We need to show that we are a united country. We have to be firm, we have to be strong.
“We are at a very difficult moment. Several terrorist attacks have been impeded during the previous weeks. We are threatened because we are a country of freedom.
“We fight threats and we will punish the attackers.”
Charlie Hebdo has launched a series of attacks on Muslim extremism and the last tweet on its profile pageCharlie_Hebdo_, sent about an hour before the shootings, included a satirical cartoon of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In it he wishes everyone “good health”.
The attackers, who fled in a dark-coloured hatchback, reportedly shouted “We have avenged the prophet”.
Witness David Chour told the BBC from close to the scene: “A lot of people from the shops heard a lot of gunshots.
“Two guys entered with Kalashnikov guns and shot the people. I haven’t seen them directly but people around said they just went away.
“People are very shocked.”
As the manhunt for the attackers began, the massacre prompted the French government to raise the national security alert system to “alerte attentat”, the highest level, across the entire Ile-de-France region around Paris.
The shootings in the capital come shortly after an outbreak of opportunist attacks in crowded spaces across France.
Late last month, a van burst into a Christmas market in the western city of Nantes, injuring 10 people before the driver reportedly began stabbing himself.
In the eastern city of Dijon, a driver reportedly shouting ”God is great” in Arabic ran down several people, injuring 13 before coming to a stop.
Those incidents came after an attacker knifed three police officers in Tours before he was shot dead by one of the officers.
The French government denied links between the attacks but announced plans to further raise security in public spaces, including the deployment of around 300 soldiers.
Repeated shots could be heard in video footage of today’s attack filmed by witnesses from various vantage points.
One clip shows what appears to be a police officer being shot at close range, before two masked men, dressed in black, get into a car.
In another clip, a passer-by hearing the attack dives for cover between two cars.
Witnesses at the magazine headquarters described a scene of carnage, with bullet holes and smashed windows.
Gilles Boulanger, who works in the same building as the Charlie Hebdo offices, likened the scene to a war zone.
He told the BBC: “A neighbour called to warn me that there were armed men in the building and that we had to shut all the doors.
“And several minutes later there were several shots heard in the building from automatic weapons firing in all directions.
“So then we looked out of the window and saw the shooting was on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, with the police. It was really upsetting. You’d think it was a war zone.”