By Philippa Hitchen
A national day of mourning has been held in France to honour the police officer who was killed after he took the place of a woman hostage during an attack on a supermarket near the southern city of Carcassonne.
French President Emmanuel Macron led tributes on Wednesday to Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, one of four victims of a shooting spree by an Islamist gunman that has shocked the nation.
Tributes for the 44-year-old gendarme began with a minute's silence in police barracks across the country, before his flag-draped coffin was driven through the streets of Paris.
Despite heavy rain, crowds lined the roads as the funeral procession made its way to the former military hospital, Les Invalides, where Macron spoke of Beltrame’s bravery and altruism.
Hostages taken in supermarket
The gendarme led a team that was called to a supermarket in the town of Trèbes last Friday, after Moroccan-born gunman, Radouane Lakdim, killed an employee and a customer, before taking others hostage. Minutes earlier he had stolen a car, shooting dead the driver and firing on a group of policemen.
Beltrame talked to the terrorist, offering himself in exchange for a woman being held as a human shield. He put down his gun and left his mobile phone on, so that colleagues could hear what was happening inside the store.
When special forces stormed the building and shot dead the attacker, they found Beltrame with bullet and knife wounds in the neck. He was rushed to hospital where he died the following morning.
Pope's condolences to victims
Pope Francis sent a message of condolences in the wake of the attack, mentioning in particular, Beltrame’s “generous and heroic” gesture.
He said: “I renew my condemnation for such acts of violence that cause so much pain and fervently ask the Lord for the gift of peace.”
France’s Catholic bishops also issued a statement saying that Beltrame’s heroic example of giving his life for others will bear fruits in a society that is scarred by violence and self-absorption.
Bishops praise heroism
The Church leaders said Catholics, throughout this Holy Week, will pray for all victims of terror attacks, especially those in the towns of Trèbes and Carcassonne, as well as asking God’s blessing on those charged with maintaining public security.
Friday's terror attack was the first since President Macron lifted a two-year state of emergency, imposed after militants killed 130 people in coordinated attacks in Paris, in November 2015.