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France train gunman says 'hunger' was attack motive

Khazzani launched his attack after the train crossed from Belgium into northern France [PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP]

Date of publication: 25 August, 2015

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Suspected gunman in Friday's attack on a Paris-bound train has denied terrorism as his motive, claiming he "wanted to rob train passengers because he was hungry," says lawyer.

The suspect in Friday's gun attack on a high-speed Paris-bound train said he was "dumfounded" by accusations of terrorism, because he only "wanted to rob train passengers because he was hungry," said lawyer his on Sunday.

The attacker, identified as 25-year-old Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani, described himself as a homeless man sleeping rough in the Belgian capital Brussels, said lawyer Sophie David who was assigned to defend Khazzani upon his arrest in Arras, in France.

Khazzani claims to have stumbled upon the weapons he used to carry out the attack that left one passenger seriously wounded in a suitcase, which according to reports were a Kalashnikov assault rifle, Luger automatic pistol, nine cartridge clips and a box-cutter.

"He said he found it in the park which is just next to the Midi Station in Brussels, where he often sleeps with other homeless people," David told the French BFM-TV.

"He says that the Kalashnikov didn't work and he was brought under control immediately without a single shot being fired," she added.

Known to intelligence agencies

However, intelligence services in several European countries have said that Khazzani has been flagged as a radical Islamist, and French investigators who are questioning him are focusing on extremism as the motive behind the attack.

A Spanish counter-terrorism source said Khazzani had lived in Spain for seven years until 2014.

During his time in Spain, he came to the attention of authorities for making hardline speeches defending jihad, and was once detained for drug trafficking, according to the source.

Spanish intelligence services say he went to France, from where he travelled to Syria, but the suspect has reportedly denied going to the conflict-ridden country where the Islamic State group (IS) controls large swathes of territory.

A source close to the French probe, meanwhile, said he "lived in Belgium, got on the train in Belgium with weapons likely acquired in Belgium. And he had identity papers issued in Spain."

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Spanish intelligence services had tipped off France over his ties to "radical Islamist movements," but it is unclear whether he lived in France at any time after leaving Spain.

German security services, meanwhile, flagged Khazzani when he boarded a flight from Berlin to Istanbul in May this year and in Belgium, Justice Minister Koen Geens confirmed Khazzani was "known" to the country's intelligence services.

'No firearms training'

Armed with the weapons, the Khazzani exited a toilet cubicle on the high-speed train just after it crossed from Belgium into northern France.

A French passenger tried to disarm Khazzani, who is described as "small, slim, not very strong," but he got away and reportedly fired at least one shot, wounding a Franco-American traveller in his 50s, which he denies.

The attack was quickly stopped when two off-duty US soldiers and their friend charged the gunman and restrained him until the train stopped in Arras, where he was arrested.

Speaking at a press conference at the US ambassador's residence in Paris on Sunday, one of the American soldiers that subdued Khazzani said if the attacker had known how to use a gun he could have killed many people.

"He clearly had no firearms training whatsoever," said Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old US National Guardsman.

"If he knew what he was doing or even got lucky and did the right thing, he would have been able to operate through all eight of the (ammunition) magazines and we probably wouldn't be here today along with a lot of other people," he added.

France has been on high alert since Islamist gunmen went on the rampage in January, killing 17 people in Paris, and authorities have since thwarted several other attacks.

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