The two masked men brandishing automatic weapons had the wrong door. They were looking for the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly.
After learning from a pair of maintenance workers that their target was two doors over, the gunmen killed one of the unfortunate duo.
It was 11:30 a.m. on the quiet Paris side street, a short walk from the Place de Bastille. The journalists were gathering on the second floor for their weekly editorial meeting. Famous for its biting commentary and irreverent, often offensive, cartoons, the magazine had earlier in the day tweeted a cartoon of an Islamic State emir.
By the time the intruders took off a few minutes later, driven away by an accomplice who was idling in their black Citroen C3, they had killed 11 people and seriously wounded five. In the words of Paris regional president Jean-Paul Huchon, they “decapitated” the editorial leadership.
The magazine’s most renowned cartoonists -- known as Cabu, Charb, Tignous and Wolinski -- are dead. Among those killed was a policeman, part of the security detail for the weekly that regularly received threats.
“They were well-armed commandos on a mission,” said Emmanuel Quemener from the police union Alliance. “They had weapons of war, including Kalashnikovs. We’ve never seen anything like it.”
The massacre lasted five minutes, Coco, a cartoonist at the publication who hid under a desk, told Humanite newspaper. At least one of the shooters shouted “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic, as he entered the offices. No claim of responsibility has been made.
Another policeman, the 12th fatality, was killed on nearby Boulevard Richard-Lenoir as the assailants engaged a patrol car in a shootout. The policeman was first wounded before being shot dead as he lay on the ground, said Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins.
With their black clothes and ski masks, the killers at a distance looked like anti-terrorist police, said Felix, who works at a stationery shop on the corner and wouldn’t give his last name.
The getaway car shook off the pursuers. They abandoned the C3 near the Porte de Pantin at the city’s northeast edge before taking off in a stolen Renault Clio, Molins said.
“All means are being used to track the assailants, to bring them to justice and punish them,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said. President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls also visited the site of the killings.
According to neighbors, Charlie Hebdo’s offices have had police protection since they were firebombed in November 2011 after it published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. The fire caused no injuries.
Charlie Hebdo’s cover this week is on “Submission,” a book by Michel Houellebecq released today, which depicts a fictional France of the future led by an Islamic party and a Muslim president who bans women from the workplace.
“We are crushed,” said Jean-Pierre Schamber, 77, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years and is a reader of Charlie Hebdo. “Even if I haven’t always agreed with Charlie, this is very disturbing.”
As night fell, police were actively searching for the men, Molins told reporters. Cazeneuve declined to confirm a report by Liberation newspaper that the three suspects were arrested.