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Friday, December 9, 2016

By Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) — French President Francois Hollande on Monday awarded France’s highest honor, the Legion d’honneur, to three U.S. citizens and a Briton who helped disarm a machine gun-toting suspected Islamist militant on a train last week.

“Faced with the evil called terrorism there is a good, that’s humanity. You are the incarnation of that,” Hollande told the four men.

The suspect’s lawyer said on Sunday the man named by intelligence sources as Ayoub el Khazzani, 26, of Morocco, is “dumbfounded” they had him down as a suspected Islamist militant. She said he told her he only intended to rob people on board because he was hungry.

Spencer Stone, a 23-year-old U.S. airman traveling with two friends on the train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday, told reporters on Sunday how he plugged the blood-spurting wound of another passenger with his fingers after himself being wounded by the attacker.

I just stuck two of my fingers in the hole, found what I thought to be the artery, pushed down and the bleeding stopped,” he said at a news conference alongside his friends, student Anthony Sadler, also 23, and National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, 22.

The man Stone helped, a Franco-American Hollande named as Mark Moogalian, remains hospitalized. U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley said he was “doing pretty well.”

Chris Norman, a 62-year-old British consultant who lives in France, was also decorated by Hollande on Monday.

Stone said another man, who is French and whose name has not been disclosed, “deserves a lot of the credit” because he was the first one to try to stop the gunman.

Stone thanked the doctors who reattached his thumb, which was almost severed by the gunman, who had been armed with a box cutter, a pistol and a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle.

According to Spanish security sources, Khazzani traveled to France in 2014 and went to Syria. French security sources said he went to Berlin airport for a flight to Istanbul on May 10 this year. Turkey is a preferred destination for would-be jihadists heading for Syria. He is on a French list of around 3,000 people who are documented as being a potential militant Islamist threat.

His father, Mohammed el Khazzani, was quoted by Spanish newspaper El Mundo as saying he had not spoken to his son since he left the Spanish southern port town of Algeciras for France in 2014 to work for a mobile phone company that fired him one month into a six-month contract.

“They are saying Ayoub is a terrorist but I simply can’t believe it,” said Khazzani, 64, a scrap merchant who lives in the poor El Saladillo district of Algeciras with his wife and some of his six children.

“Why would he want to kill anyone? It makes no sense,” he said of his son. “The only terrorism he is guilty of is terrorism for bread. He doesn’t have enough money to feed himself properly.”

France has been on high alert since January this year when 17 people died in Islamist militant attacks on a satirical newspaper and in a siege in a Jewish shop.

(Additional reporting and writing by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago, Adrian Croft in Madrid and Andrew Callus in Paris; Editing by Paul Simao and Dominic Evans)

Photo: French President Francois Hollande (L) awards U.S. Airman First Class Spencer Stone (C) with the Legion d’Honneur (the Legion of Honour) medal as U.S. National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos applauds during a ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, August 24, 2015. REUTERS/Michel Euler/Pool