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Hollande defends freedom of speech after anti-Hebdo clashes

He was speaking a day after the satirical weekly’s publication of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad.

FILE: French President Francois Hollande. Picture: AFP.

PARIS - French President Francois Hollande said on Saturday that anti-Charlie Hebdo protesters in other countries do not understand France's attachment to freedom of speech.

He was speaking a day after the satirical weekly's publication of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad sparked violent clashes, including deaths, in some Muslim countries.

Demand has surged for Charlie Hebdo's first issue since two militant gunmen burst into its weekly editorial conference and shot dead 12 people at the start of three days of violence that shocked France.

A cartoon image of Mohammad on its front page outraged many in the Muslim world, triggering demonstrations that turned violent in Algeria, Niger and Pakistan on Friday.

"We've supported these countries in the fight against terrorism," Hollande said during a visit to the southern city of Tulle, traditionally his political fiefdom.

"I still want to express my solidarity (towards them), but at the same time France has principles and values, in particular freedom of expression."

The shootings in Paris were prompted by Charlie Hebdo's previous publication of Mohammad cartoons, a depiction many Muslims consider blasphemous.

CHURCHES TORCHED

In Niger, protesters set fire to churches and looted shops in the capital Niamey on Saturday in a second day of riots over Charlie Hebdo's publication of the image.

France's embassy in Niamey advised its citizens against going out in the streets.

Five people were killed on Friday in Zinder, the second city of the former French colony, while churches were burnt and Christian homes looted.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned the violence in Niamey and Zinder and said France stood in solidarity with Niger authorities.

Protests also turned violent on Friday in the southern Pakistan city of Karachi where police used teargas and a water cannon against demonstrators outside the French consulate.

Several Algerian police officers were injured in clashes with demonstrators in Algiers after rioting broke out at the end of a protest.

"There are tensions abroad where people don't understand our attachment to the freedom of speech," Hollande said. "We've seen the protests, and I would say that in France all beliefs are respected."

Hollande has received a big poll boost for his handling of the attacks with his popularity rating surging to its highest level in nearly one and a half years.

His rating has jumped to 34 percent from 24 percent before the attacks, according to a BVA poll published on Saturday.

Produced by survivors of the attack, the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo shows a cartoon of a tearful Mohammad holding a "Je suis Charlie" sign under the words "All is forgiven."

A lawyer for one of the gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo attack said the man had been buried in the eastern city of Reims in an unmarked grave so as not to attract sympathisers.

Meanwhile, Belgium deployed hundreds of troops to guard potential terrorism targets. Two gunmen were killed on Thursday during an anti-Islamist raid in the town of Vervier.

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