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France pays tribute to hero gendarme killed in terrorist attack
French President Emmanuel Macron led a national ceremony on Wednesday honouring Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame who died offering himself as a hostage in a jihadist attack.
Lieutenant-Colonel Beltrame, 44, was the fourth and final victim in the shooting spree last Friday in the southwestern towns of Carcassonne and nearby Trebes.
"In giving his life to bring to an end the deadly actions of a jihadist terrorist, he died a hero," Macron said ahead of the ceremony.
The senior policeman had taken the place of a woman held as a final hostage in a supermarket by 25-year-old gunman Radouane Lakdim, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State armed group.
France has lost more than 240 lives to jihadists over the past three years, and the attack is the country's worst since Macron became president last May.
Around 200 of Beltrame's colleagues from the gendarmerie, a national police force which is part of the military, attended the ceremony at the Invalides museum in Paris.
Outside the Hôtel des Invalides hundreds of mourners watched on.
"Some of my friends are asking why we're waiting in the rain,” Hélène, 9, told RFI.
She came with her classmates to pay her respects, “I tell them he saved a life. He died for the woman. So waiting in the rain is nothing. We mustn't complain. He's a hero."
Bruno, who lives nearby, said it was important to show his solidarity.
"It’s an important moment,” he says. “It’s a difficult moment. We must stand together. Together around him and to show that we're strong. I'm really really sad."
Speaking at the ceremony , Macron hailed Lieutenant-Colonel Beltrame as a symbol of the “French spirit of resistance” and urged the nation to be vigilant in the face of an “insidious” jihadist threat.
“The name of his attacker will be forgotten, but the name of Arnaud Beltrame will live on,” Macron said.
The French President vowed to ensure “he will not have died in vain”.
“His example will remain etched in French hearts,” Macron told hundreds gathered in the rain at the historic Invalides military museum and hospital in central Paris.
Across the country, police stations paused for a minute's silence in the morning.
The coffin of Beltrame, who was married, was flown in from Carcassonne on Tuesday, draped in the French flag with his military cap laid upon it.
Along with the police officer, Lakdim shot dead the passenger of a car he hijacked in Carcassonne and two people in the supermarket he had besieged in Trèbes.
Beltrame took the place of the woman Lakdim was using as a human shield, hoping to negotiate once the terrified shoppers and supermarket staff were out of the way.
But Lakdim shot Beltrame and slit his throat, leading police to intervene and shoot the attacker dead.
The attacker wounded four other people, including the driver of the hijacked car and a policeman shot while out jogging.
Beltrame has been hailed as a national hero, with family members saying it was typical of him to put others first.
"You behaved in your last moments just as you behaved throughout your whole life: as a patriot, as a good man, as a man with a big heart," his brother Damien wrote on Facebook.
Macron's government has meanwhile come under criticism from rightwing opponents who allege that the attack could have been prevented.
Lakdim, who had previous convictions for drug use and handling a banned weapon, had been on a list of suspected extremists since 2014 and was being monitored.
A police source told the AFP news agency that Lakdim had been summoned by anti-terror police for questioning earlier this month.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen accused the government of exploiting the grief over Beltrame to "escape from its own incompetence and cowardice" in failing to tackle Islamic extremism.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe hit back at the criticism on Tuesday.
"Those who say ignorantly that this attack could have been avoided, those who promise people zero risk -- I say to them, these people bear a heavy responsibility in speaking so casually," Philippe told parliament.
He rejected rightwing proposals to impose an outright ban on ultraconservative Salafist Islam or "preemptively" detain the most radicalised Islamists.
France already has "a legal arsenal" to "understand, monitor and sanction" extremists, Philippe said.
- with AFP