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article imageMichel, Lassana and Ahmed — France's ordinary heroes

By Ambre Tosunoglu, Eve Szeftel and Thibauld Malterre (AFP)     Jan 11, 2015 in World

The manager at a printing shop who hid his employee from hostage-takers, a Muslim who rescued Jews, a policeman whose death was broadcast worldwide -- these were three of the ordinary heroes caught up in France's twin terrorist attacks this week.

- 'Protect Lilian' -

It was a regular Friday morning for Michel Catalano, 47, at the printing shop in Dammartin-en-Goele, north of Paris, when the two most wanted men in France showed up outside.

"I did not realise it was them, then I saw the Kalashnikov (rifle) and a rocket launcher," he told AFP.

His first thought was to find his graphic designer, Lilian Lepere, who is 26, to tell him to hide, he said.

Lepere quickly hid under a kitchen sink.

Catalano then went to face the danger.

"They came by the stairs and I went to meet them. I tried to talk to them to slow them down so that Lilian would have time to hide," Michel said, barely able to get the words out.

"I even offered them a coffee. I saw one of them was wounded in the neck and I offered to help," he said. All the time, though, "I thought of Lilian and how they must not find him."

Unexpectedly, the Kouachi brothers -- who two days earlier had killed 12 people in an Islamist attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo for publishing cartoons insulting the Prophet Mohammed -- let Catalano go.

Evidently they were not interested in keeping hostages and were ready to die.

Meanwhile, Lepere remained hidden, using his phone to text crucial information to the anti-terrorism police stationed outside ahead of an assault a few hours later.

"I'm not a hero," Catalano says.

- 'We're brothers' -

At a kosher supermarket on the edge of Paris, it was Lassana Bathily, a Muslim employee of Malian roots, who helped Jewish shoppers to hide in a cold storage room from another Islamist gunman.

It was lunch hour on Friday when Amedy Coulibaly entered, firing from a Kalashnikov. He said he wanted to help the Kouachi brothers who at that point were still under seige in Dammartin-en-Goele.

As people fled, Bathily, 24, guided them to the cold store -- taking care to turn off the refrigeration.

A policeman carries flowers brought by people in front of a kosher grocery store in Porte de Vincenn...
A policeman carries flowers brought by people in front of a kosher grocery store in Porte de Vincennes, eastern Paris, on January 10, 2015, a day after four people were killed at the Jewish supermarket by a jihadist gunman
Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP/File

"I heard shooting. Then I saw my colleague and clients running. I said to them, come, come!" he recalled in television interviews.

Then Bathily suggested escaping via the freight elevator, but no one wanted to take the risk and he left by himself and was immediately met by police.

"I gave them the layout of the shop to help the police prepare their assault," he said.

"We're brothers," he said. "It's not a question of Jews or Christians or Muslims. We're all in the same boat."

The modest hero got a phone call from President Francois Hollande on Sunday to give thanks.

- 'I am Ahmed' -

The entire crisis started on Wednesday when Said and Cherif Kouachi attacked Charlie Hebdo, shouting that they were avenging Islam's prophet for the insulting cartoons.

A photo shows flowers near a kosher grocery store in Porte de Vincennes  eastern Paris  on January 1...
A photo shows flowers near a kosher grocery store in Porte de Vincennes, eastern Paris, on January 10, 2015, a day after four people were killed at the Jewish supermarket by a jihadist gunman
Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP/File

Among the first police officers to reach the scene was Ahmed Merabet, who was wounded and then -- on footage shown on television worldwide -- finished off as he lay on the pavement outside, with one hand up in the air.

His brother Malek Merabet says he's haunted by the voice of Ahmed in that footage as he asked the approaching gunmen to spare his life.

"I hear him all the time," he says.

The family is originally from Algeria and Malek Merabet said his brother had been a "hard worker" wanting to better himself. He worked at McDonalds, then for the French railways and finally got a job in the police.

Most of the attention has focused on the slain staff at Charlie Hebdo, including its famous cartoonists who had provoked widespread ire in the Islamic world with their caricatures of Mohammed. The "Je suis Charlie" slogan has become a global phenomenon.

But now those honouring Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim confronting Islamists, have their own Twitter hashtag:

#JeSuisAhmed.

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