Charlie Hebdo suspect arrested in Djibouti

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Peter Cherif  Pens and pencils left in tribute after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015. Photograph: Etienne Laurent/EPA

A French terror suspect linked by police to the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdothat killed 12 people has been arrested in Djibouti.

Peter Cherif, 36, also known as Abou Hamza, is to be transferred to France for questioning over allegations he masterminded the shootings in Paris at the satirical newspaper.

Cherif was a close friend of brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who burst into Charlie Hebdo’s office on 7 January 2015 and gunned down staff at an editorial conference. The brothers escaped, killing a police officer on the way out, and fled north. They died in a shootout at a printworks two days later.

The attack came after the newspaper carried satirical depictions of the prophet Muhammad on its front page.

Speaking about Cherif’s arrest, the French defence minister, Florence Parly, told RTL radio: “It shows the fight against terrorism is a long-haul action and if you stay committed then you obtain results.”

Cherif, one of France’s most-wanted terror suspects, had been on the run since 2011 when he escaped after handing himself in to French authorities in Syria.

A court sketch of Peter Cherif in 2011
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 A court sketch of Peter Cherif in 2011. Photograph: Benoît Peyrucq/AFP/Getty Images

Born in Paris, Cherif moved from petty crime to armed robbery and drew the attention of French intelligence services in the late 1990s. Around this time he met the Kouachi brothers, who were also living in eastern Paris.

They were all believed to have been part of a group known as the Buttes-Chaumont network, named after a local park, that was sending jihadis to fight in Iraq. When police rounded up the network, they discovered Cherif had already left.

He was captured by the Americans in December 2004 after he was reportedly injured while fighting as part of an al-Qaida unit in Fallujah. In 2007, he escaped from prison and moved to Syria.

Fearing he was about to be captured by Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in 2008, Cherif gave himself up to the French authorities. However, he escaped again in January 2011.

He was last reported to be in Yemen, where French intelligence services say he invited the Kouachi brothers to train to shoot. They say he was in regular contact with the Kouachis before the Charlie Hebdo attack but admit his alleged role in the killings is still unclear.

One day after the Charlie Hebdo killings, Amédy Coulibaly, a follower of Islamic State and another member of the Buttes-Chaumont network, as well as a close friend of the Kouachi brothers, killed a trainee policewoman. Twenty-four hours later, he took hostages at a Jewish supermarket in the south of the city, killing four of them before he was shot dead by police.

Twenty people were killed and more than a dozen injured by the gunmen in three days of terror attacks.

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