PARIS: French investigators on Monday quizzed the radicalised girlfriend of the Islamist gunman who shot dead four people last week in southern France, including a heroic policeman killed after taking the place of a hostage.
Policeman Arnaud Beltrame was the fourth person killed during Radouane Lakdim's rampage in the towns of Carcassonne and Trebes that also left three people injured.
Beltrame's mother Nicole said she was not surprised that her 44-year-old son offered to be swapped for a woman held hostage by Lakdim at a supermarket in the sleepy town of Trebes.
"I know Arnaud: loyal, altruistic, and since he was small, working for other people, committed to the country," she said, adding the practising Catholic would have wanted his act to make people "a bit more tolerant".
Lakdim, a 25-year-old Moroccan-born French national who was on a watchlist of suspected extremists, also killed a butcher and an elderly shopper when he stormed the Super U supermarket after firing at police and shooting dead a man when hijacking a car in Carcassonne.
During the siege he said he was acting on behalf of the Islamic State group and demanded the release of Salah Abdeslam, the prime suspect in the November 2015 Paris terror attacks.
On Monday, police continued to question his 18-year-old girlfriend, who converted to Islam at 16 and had also been on the watchlist of potential radicals.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters that she shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) while in custody but denied any prior knowledge of Lakdim's attack plans.
A 17-year-old man described as a friend of Lakdim's who was under his sway, is also in custody over the attack. He too denies any involvement, Molins said.
Under France's anti-terrorism laws, the two suspects can be held for up to 96 hours without charge.
Over 200 officers are probing the latest in a string of jihadist attacks that have claimed the lives of over 240 people around France since January 2015.
President Emmanuel Macron will lead a national commemoration to Beltrame at Invalides military museum in Paris on Wednesday, his office said.
Pope Francis, in a message to the Catholic Church in Carcassonne, saluted "the generous and heroic gesture of Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, who gave his life in trying to protect others."
Richard Lizurey, the head of France's gendarmes police service, said Beltrame took the initiative to swap places with a woman being used by Lakdim as a human shield at the Super U supermarket in Trebes.
Beltrame's widow Marielle told the Christian weekly La Vie that his actions were "the act of a gendarme and of a Christian."
Suspects under surveillance
Lakdim came to France with his family in 1992 as an infant and gained citizenship 12 years later.
He dabbled in drugs and petty crime and in 2016 spent a month in prison but prison authorities "detected no visible sign of radicalisation", Molins said.
But investigators have found notes at his home in Carcassonne referring to the Islamic State group, a legal source said, including a handwritten letter in which he claimed allegiance to the jihadists.
Armed with a gun, knife and homemade explosive devices, he remained holed up for over two hours at the Super U supermarket with Beltrame, who took the place of a female hostage.
Beltrame was fatally stabbed in the throat by Lakdim shortly before police stormed the store, ending the siege.
Photos of heroes, not killers
Hundreds of mourners packed a church service Sunday for the victims of France's latest Islamist attack.
Asked if she felt hatred towards Lakdim, Beltrame's mother replied: "Not at all. I feel indifference and the greatest sense of contempt."
She also suggested not even talking about him, "not showing his photo. We should show the photos of heroes, not killers and monsters."