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Officials: Police had Champs-Elysees attacker in their grasp

The Paris gunman who shot and killed a police officer just days before France’s presidential election was detained in February for threatening police but then freed. He was also convicted in 2003 of attempted homicide in the shootings of two police officers.

PARIS — The Champs-Elysees gunman who shot and killed a police officer just days before France’s presidential election was detained in February for threatening police but then freed, two officials told The Associated Press on Friday. He was also convicted in 2003 of attempted homicide in the shootings of two police officers.

The French government pulled out all the stops to protect Sunday’s vote as the attack deepened France’s political divide.

“Nothing must hamper this democratic moment, essential for our country,” Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said after a high-level meeting Friday that reviewed the government’s already heightened security plans for the two-round vote that begins Sunday.

“Barbarity and cowardice struck Paris last night,” the prime minister said, appealing for national unity and for people “not to succumb to fear.”

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Investigators believe at this stage that the gunman, 39-year-old Frenchman Karim Cheurfi, was alone in killing a police officer and wounding two others and a German tourist on Thursday night, less than 72 hours before the polls open, a French official who discussed details of the investigation with the AP said on condition of anonymity.

The official and another, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Cheurfi was detained toward the end of February after speaking threateningly about police but was then released for lack of evidence.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack unusually quickly in a statement that sowed confusion by apparently misidentifying the gunman.

Police shot and killed Cheurfi after he opened fire on a police van on Paris’ most famous boulevard. Investigators found a pump-action shotgun and knives in his car. Cheurfi’s identity was confirmed from his fingerprints.

One of the key questions was how the attack might impact French voters.

The risk for the main presidential candidates is misjudging the public mood by making an ill-perceived gesture or comment. With polling so close, and campaigning banned starting Friday at midnight, they would have no time to recover before voters cast ballots.

The two top finishers Sunday advance to a winner-takes-all presidential runoff on May 7. Two of the main candidates, conservative Francois Fillon and centrist Emmanuel Macron, cancelled planned campaign stops Friday.

The attack brought back the recurrent campaign theme of France’s fight against Islamic extremism, one of the mainstays of the anti-immigration platform of far-right leader Marine Le Pen and also, to a lesser extent, of Fillon, a former prime minister. In the wake of the assault,…

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