PARIS, France — Paris is on edge.
After three major attacks in France and several smaller incidents over the past two years, terrorism has become a regular part of the conversation here — on TV, on the radio, and in the streets.
Perhaps it is no surprise then that shoppers in central Paris called the police on Saturday afternoon when they thought they heard an explosion on Rue St. Denis near Rue Étienne Marcel.
People crowded into a church on the cobblestone shopping street to hide. In the commotion, police thought it might have been a hostage situation.*
It was a deemed a false alarm, but not before more than a hundred officers, including elite units, were called to the scene, according to Reuters.
I happened to be walking by that church at the time, and within a matter of minutes, found myself in the heart of a major security operation, as police who were holding protective shields and wearing bulletproof gear advanced on the scene, shouting at passersby to get away.
I was impressed by how quickly authorities reacted to the situation, but what perhaps surprised me the most was how many people stuck around to watch events unfold. To be sure, some ran away as soon as police arrived, but hordes of others stood by gawking — and even demanding that police tell them what was going on.
Here’s what it’s like to find yourself in the middle of a major police operation in the heart of Paris.
*This version of events is according to several police officers on the scene with whom I spoke. Some local French media are reporting that the phone call was a hoax.
I was walking along St. Denis, a trendy shopping street, when police in bulletproof gear started rushing by me. Passersby asked what was going on, and they told them to get out of the street. A number of people bolted.
Here's the church where they thought a hostage situation might be taking place. I didn't realise how close I was to the scene at the time.
'Don't you think I have better things to do than tell you to move?' one officer told pedestrians in French. 'There could be snipers around.'
The French government sent out a notification over its security app, SAIP, to warn people that a potential terrorist attack was underway.
I was surprised by how many curious onlookers hung around to see what was happening, rather than run away, despite the number of tragedies this city has recently endured.
After about an hour, French authorities tweeted that it was a false alarm, and started to let people back into the area.
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