French police said at least 12 people are dead after an attack at the Paris headquarters of the satirical weekly paper Charlie Hebdo.
Media reports said at least two gunmen opened fire with automatic rifles and a rocket launcher inside the building housing the newspaper's offices, with one of the men captured on video shouting “Allah!”
The suspects are believed to have fled in two vehicles.
According to local media reports, the newspaper staff was holding an editorial meeting when the shooting occurred.
Another 20 people were injured in the attack, including four or five critically. Police union official Rocco Contento described the scene inside the offices as “carnage.”
Ten members of the Charlie Hebdo staff died in the attack, prosecutors said. Sources at the weekly said the dead included co-founder Jean “Cabu” Cabut and editor-in-chief Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier.
Hollande defends press freedom
“An act of indescribable barbarity has just been committed today in Paris,”French President Francois Hollande said.
He then defended the media: "No act of barbarity will ever extinguish freedom of the press."
France has raised its terrorism alert to the highest level following the shooting.
Hollande, who went to the site of the attack shortly after the shootings took place said the chase was on to find the attackers and bring them to justice.
France last year reinforced its anti-terrorism laws and is already on alert after calls from Islamist militants to attack its citizens and interests in reprisal for French military strikes on Islamist strongholds in the Middle East and Africa.
“I am extremely angry. These are criminals, barbarians. They have sold their soul to hell. This is not freedom. This is not Islam and I hope the french will come out united at the end of this,” said Hassen Chalghoumi, imam of the Drancy mosque in Paris's Seine-Saint-Denis northern suburb.
The White House strongly condemned the attack.
"France, and the great city of Paris where this outrageous attack took place, offer the world a timeless example that will endure well beyond the hateful vision of these killers," President Barack Obama said Wednesday, adding that America's thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the terrorist attack.
The White House said Obama has directed the administration to provide any assistance needed "to help bring these terrorists to justice."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also condemned the shooting.
“This abominable act is not only an attack on the lives of French citizens and their security. It is also an attack on freedom of speech and the press, core elements of our free democratic culture," Merkel said.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists described the attack as a brazen assault on free expression.
The scale of the violence is appalling,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “Journalists must now stand together to send the message that such murderous attempts to silence us will not stand.”
A journalist from a press agency located just across the street described the scene to French radio, saying many shots were fired from Kalashnikov rifles. He then saw two armed and masked people leaving the building.
The eyewitness said he heard yelling and shots being fired on the street, and that police and emergency services arrived a few minutes later.
A neighbor said a man had entered her building asking for Charlie Hebdo and speaking in bad French. She said shortly after, shots rang out.
There are also reports the attackers said their act was to avenge the Prophet Mohammed.
The barbarity of the attack has left France in shock.
A short amateur video broadcast by French television stations shows two hooded men outside the building. One of them sees a wounded policeman lying on the ground and strides over to him to shoot him dead at point-blank range.
Wednesday's attack is considered one of the worst terrorist attacks on French soil in decades.
Late last year, a man shouting “Allahu Akbar” injured 13 by ramming a vehicle into a crowd in the eastern city of Dijon. In 2012, seven people were killed in attacks that targeted French soldiers and Jewish civilians. In 1995, a series of attacks were carried out, including a commuter train bombing that killed eight and injured 150.
Known for its irreverent tone, the left-wing magazine frequently comments on religion and culture.
Thousands of people took to Facebook and Twitter in support of the publication and the cartoon, saying freedom of expression must be defended.
Charlie Hebdo's offices were firebombed in 2011 after it published an issue poking fun at the Muslim prophet.
Muslims also denounced the weekly for later publishing a series of crude comics of the prophet.
Wednesday's shooting coincides with the launch of a controversial French book depicting France's election of its first Muslim president. Charlie Hebdo has featured the cover of the book, "Submission," on its cover.
Meanwhile, Danish media group JP/Politikens Hus, whose newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons in 2005 depicting the Prophet Mohammad, has increased its security level because of the Parish shooting, an internal email showed.
Jyllands-Posten's publishing of the cartoons sparked a wave of protests across the Muslim world in which at least 50 died.
Victoria Macchi contributed to this report from Washington. Some material for this report came from Reuters.