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Man ambushes French soldiers in car attack, later arrested

French police officers work near the scene where French soldiers were hit and injured by a vehicle in the western Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret near Paris, France, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. French police are searching for a driver who slammed his BMW into a group of soldiers, injuring six of them in an apparent ambush before speeding away, officials said. The incident in Levallois, northwest of Paris, is the latest of several attacks targeting security forces in France.(AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)

A man rammed his car into a group of soldiers near Paris, injuring six of them, and then was cornered by police in a highway manhunt— the latest in what's become a disturbingly familiar pattern of attacks targeting French security forces.

It's unclear what motivated the driver, hospitalized with bullet wounds after a calculated morning ambush and hours-long police chase. But authorities said he deliberately accelerated his BMW into a cluster of soldiers in what prosecutors are investigating as a potential terrorist attack.

President Emmanuel Macron's government painted the incident in the suburb of Levallois-Perret as proof of the need to approve a new security law that critics fear infringes on liberties and puts the country in a permanent state of emergency.

Wednesday's attack caused no deaths and hurt no civilians, but still set nerves on edge — the seventh attempted attack on security forces guarding France this year alone. While others have targeted prominent sites like the Eiffel Tower, Wednesday's attack hit the leafy, relatively affluent suburb of Levallois-Perret that is home to France's main intelligence service, the DGSI, and its counterterrorism service.

"We know it was a deliberate act," Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said. Defense Minister Florence Parly called it a reminder that extra security measures imposed in recent years are "more necessary than ever."

On a quiet summer morning, the suspect was seen waiting in a black car in a cul-de-sac near the Levallois city hall and a building used as a staging point for soldiers in France's Sentinelle operation to protect prominent sites, according to two police officials.

A group of soldiers emerged from the building to board vehicles for a new shift when the car sped up and rammed into them, its force hurling the soldiers against their van, according to one official. The interior minister said the car first approached slowly then sped up about five meters (yards) from its target.

A nearby resident described an ear-piercing scream of pain, then soldiers chasing after the fleeing car.

Authorities checked video surveillance of the area and police fanned out and stopped numerous cars as they searched for the attacker. Most were released.

Then, on the A16 highway near the English Channel port of Calais, police stopped what the prime minister called the "principal suspect." Images of the arrest scene showed emergency vehicles surrounding a black BMW with a damaged windshield, on a cordoned-off highway in the midst of verdant fields.

Police officers opened fire during the arrest to subdue the man, and the suspect was injured along with an officer hit by a stray police bullet, according to a judicial official. The official wasn't authorized to be publicly named because of an ongoing police operation.

The suspect was hospitalized, the official said, but his condition wasn't immediately clear.

Heavily armed, masked police searched a building believed linked to the attacker in the Paris suburb of Bezons on Wednesday night. His identity wasn't released.

The defense minister said she received "reassuring" news about the condition of the injured soldiers, and that their lives aren't in danger.

The soldiers were from the 35th infantry regiment and served in Operation Sentinelle, created to guard prominent French sites after a string of deadly Islamic extremist attacks in 2015.

A witness to the car attack, Nadia LeProhon, was startled by a loud crash outside her building and rushed outside her seventh-floor window to see two soldiers on the ground. Other soldiers ran after a speeding car, shouting "After him! Follow that car!"

"I'll never forget that scream — a scream of pain and distress," she told The Associated Press.

Resident Jean-Claude Veillant said he saw two uniformed soldiers prone on the ground when he came down to the entrance of his 13-story building.

"It was horrible," he said, adding that both soldiers appeared to be in bad shape and one of them was unconscious.

The street is normally guarded by posts that are removed when vehicles move in and out, so the driver must have known exactly when to strike, Veillant said. "They must've really planned this," he said.

Counterterrorism prosecutors opened an investigation on potential charges of attempted murder of security forces in connection with a terrorist enterprise, the Paris prosecutor's office said.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said that despite a sustained "high threat" against France, the government is sticking to plans to lift a 21-month state of emergency.

Speaking to lawmakers, he insisted that a new bill enshrining permanent counterterrorism measures would be enough to replace the state of emergency, imposed after deadly Islamic extremist attacks in November 2015. The bill is currently under parliamentary debate, ahead of an expected end to the state of emergency Nov. 1.

Macron discussed the attack at a security meeting Wednesday and at a weekly Cabinet meeting, but hasn't commented publicly on what happened.

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Angela Charlton reported from Paris. Elaine Ganley and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

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