By RYAN GORMAN
France's most heralded cartoonists, journalists and two police officers are among at least a dozen dead after terrorists stormed a satirical newspaper that twice published a cartoon mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
Authorities have confirmed at least 12 are dead after three masked gunmen rampaged through the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo Wednesday morning. It is not clear how many people are injured. The crazed shooters are still on the loose, according to French authorities.
#BREAKING French interior minister says 'three criminals' involved in attacks
- Agence France-Presse (@AFP) January 7, 2015
The attack comes after the incendiary cartoons were published in 2011, and then again in 2012, sparking protests and condemnation around the Muslim world. One of the illustrations can be viewed here.
Some of the illustrators behind the satirical drawings are among the dead.
- Agnes Poirier (@AgnesCPoirier) January 7, 2015
Millions around the world have tweeted the hashtag #JeSeuisCharlie in support of the publication.
Sources told the Sydney Morning Herald that the gunmen shouted "Allahu Akbar" while slaughtering Charlie Hebdo employees and then yelled "we have avenged the Prophet" while fleeing the scene.
The masked shooters were engaged in a shootout with police outside the office, not far from the iconic Bastille, before fleeing in a rented car, according to French media.
Video shot from a nearby rooftop shows two badly injured officers being executed in plain view by the crazed killers.
The cartoonist who drew the inflammatory cartoons miraculously survived the carnage and is quoted in at least one report saying the shooters spoke fluent French and claimed to be members of al-Qaida, according to at least one report.
Charlie Hebdo was in the middle of an editorial meeting to plan a special Islam-themed edition titled "Sharia Hebdo" when the attack occurred, according to the Herald. The publication tweeted a cartoon mocking Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi just minutes before the assault.
The Osama bin Laden-founded group, also responsible for several attacks including 9/11, has yet to claim responsibility.
French President Francois Hollande called the incident "a terrorist attack, without a doubt," and "a barbaric act." He also said several other attacks have been thwarted in France "in recent weeks."
Hollande notably was on the scene of the horrific massacre even as the terrorists were still on the loose and a manhunt ensued.
"We are threatened because we are a country of liberty," Hollande told gathered media. "We will punish the aggressors."
France immediately raised its terror alert to the highest level while reinforcing security at houses of worship, stores, media offices and transportation. Top government officials were holding an emergency meeting.
Leaders around the world have resoundingly condemned the assault.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a statement: "Moscow resolutely condemns terrorism in all its forms. Nothing can justify terrorist attacks."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered words of support.
"In these difficult times we stand firmly side by side with our French friends," she said in a statement.
"I'm horrified by the barbaric attacks in France," said Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families."
Warning: Graphic content is shown in this video
U.S. President Barack Obama said: "I strongly condemn the horrific shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo ... France is America's oldest ally and has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorists who threaten our shared security and the world.
"Time and again, the French people have stood up for the universal values that ... will endure well beyond the hateful vision of these killers."
Obama also offered also offered unspecified American assets to help hunt the terror suspects down.
The White House said of the French through a spokesperson: "We know they are not going to be cowed by this terrible act."
Omer Celik, Turkish culture and tourism minister joined the angry chorus in comments to Agence France-Press (AFP)
"I reject any equation of Islam and this cowardly attack. One cannot defend Islam with such a massacre," he said. "This attack aims to reinforce the negative perception of foreigners and Muslims in a climate in Europe of growing Islamophobia and racism."
The extremist Islamic State group, backed by ISIS, has repeatedly threatened to attack France, and minutes before the attack Charlie Hebdo had tweeted a satirical cartoon of that extremist group's leader giving New Year's wishes.
Charlie Hebdo has been repeatedly threatened for publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, among other controversial sketches, and its offices were firebombed in 2011.
The 2011 firebombing came after a spoof issue featuring a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad on its cover. Nearly a year later, the publication again published crude Muhammad caricatures.
Wednesday's attack comes the same day of the release of a book by a celebrated French novelist depicting France's election of its first Muslim president. Hollande had been due to meet with the country's top religious officials later in the day.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.
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