June 30, 2015 / 9:39 AM / in 2 years

France pursues terrorism charge against beheading suspect

The suspect held over an attack against a gas company site is escorted by police officers during investigations in Saint-Priest, near Lyon, France, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot

PARIS (Reuters) - A man who beheaded his boss, pinned the head on a fence and tried to blow up an industrial gas plant will be investigated on terrorism charges, France’s chief public prosecutor said on Tuesday, dismissing the suspect’s claim that his act was not motivated by connections with Islamist militants.

Prosecutor Francois Molins announced the news at the end of a 96-hour custody period following the arrest of Yassin Salhi, 35, at the scene of the crime near the southern city of Lyon.

The attack last Friday came five months after 17 people were killed in Paris by Islamist militants who targeted the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical journal and a Jewish shop.

Molins said 120 investigators had spent four days combing through phone messages and quizzing Salhi, who worked as a delivery man, and his relatives. They discovered he had sent two photos of his act to a Islamist militant contact in Syria. One showed the murdered man, and the other was a selfie with the victim.

The severed head of Salhi’s boss was found chained to a fence, next to flags bearing professions of the Muslim faith, at the site of the U.S-based gas and chemicals company Air Products. Salhi was captured there after allegedly trying to blow up gas canisters.

A lawyer for Salhi told BFM TV that Salhi was “in no way a militant”, a line of defence his client pursued during initial questioning but which Molins dismissed.

The prosecutor detailed a chilling story, pieced together on the basis of the weekend’s questioning, of a suspect he said had left home early on Friday with a long-bladed knife, hit his boss on the head with a car jack, then strangled him and driven to the gas plant. On the way, he allegedly stopped to sever the head, which he pinned to the factory fence.

Salhi, who initially refused to talk, argued that his act was purely motivated by personal problems, namely a quarrel with his wife and his boss, said Molins. But he said there was considerable evidence to support the charge that it was also a terrorist act: “One doesn’t rule out the other.”

Molins revealed that Salhi’s sister said during questioning that he had spent a year in Syria in 2009, and on his return invested time in both Koranic schooling and hardcore combat sports.

“Yassin Salhi beheaded his victim and pinned his head on a fence to seek maximum publicity for his act,” said Molins. He said this was a form of execution advocated by militants like Islamic State, which controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq.

Investigators had also unearthed evidence of regular contact between Salhi and Islamist extremists, said Molins.

Autopsy results were still pending to establish whether Salhi’s boss, 54-year-old Herve Cornara, died before or as a result of the beheading, he added.

Additional reporting by Chine Labbe; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Mark Trevelyan

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