STRASBOURG: A gunman on a security watchlist killed three people and wounded a dozen others near the picturesque Christmas market in the historic French city of Strasbourg on Tuesday evening before fleeing.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the shooter had evaded a police dragnet and was on the run, raising concerns of a follow-up attack.
“The government has raised its security threat to the highest level and is bolstering border controls,” Castaner told a late-night news conference. “We will also reinforce security at all Christmas markets to prevent copycat attacks.”
With France still on high alert after a wave of attacks commissioned or inspired by Daesh militants since early 2015, the counter-terrorism prosecutor opened an investigation.
Police identified the suspect as Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt, 29, who was known to the intelligence services as a potential security risk.
Castaner said the gunman exchanged shots with security forces twice as he escaped. His whereabouts now were unknown, and elite commandos and helicopters were involved in the manhunt.
The Paris prosecutor said the motive for the attack was not known. No one immediately claimed responsibility, but the US-based Site intelligence group, which monitors extremist websites, said Daesh supporters were celebrating.
The attack began at about 8 PM (1900 GMT) as stallholders prepared to close down and restaurants filled in the city, which sits across the Rhine River from Germany. Bystanders were swiftly ushered into nearby shops.
“There was confusion initially but they locked the front doors pretty soon after the gunshots,” said US citizen Elizabeth Osterwisch, who was sheltering on the top floor of the Galeries Lafayette department store. “They moved us several times, eventually settling on the place with the most protection.”
European Parliament lawmaker Emmanuel Maurel said he had heard the shots.
“From my hotel window I saw passersby dragging someone who was injured and onlookers panicking,” he tweeted. “Soldiers and police have cordoned off the area. We’re being told to stay in the hotel.”
‘Serious public security event’
“Serious public security event underway in Strasbourg. Residents are asked to stay at home,” the French interior ministry had said in a tweet, with deputy mayor Alain Fontanel also confirming the incident.
“Thanks to all for staying at home until the situation has been clarified,” he added.
According to a press release issued by the state services in Grand Est and Bas-Rhin department, “Around 8 PM, an individual opened fire in the city centre of Strasbourg. … 10 wounded evacuated to the hospital of Strasbourg.”
Police said while the suspected gunman had been identified, he was still being “actively sought”. A public information unit (CIP) was also set up, it said.
Castaner had tweeted: “Our security and rescue services are being mobilised. Do not propagate rumours and follow the advice of the authorities.”
Castaner also said the gunman was known to security services, and the local prefecture said he was on an intelligence services watchlist.
Some two hours after the attack, elite police cornered the suspect and shots were fired, a source close to the operation said. French media reported the assailant was holed up in a store on the Rue Epinal.
People in the city’s Neudorf area and Etoile park were told to stay where they were as officers hunted the shooter on the ground and from the air.
A Reuters reporter was among 30 to 40 people being held in the basement of a supermarket for their own safety, waiting for police to clear the area. Lights were switched off and bottles of water handed out.
The European Parliament, which is sitting in Strasbourg this week, was put into lockdown.
The Christmas market was being held amid tight security this year, with unauthorised vehicles excluded from surrounding streets during opening hours and checkpoints set up on bridges and access points to search pedestrians’ bags.
The Paris prosecutor said the motive for the attack was not known. No group immediately claimed responsibility but the US-based Site intelligence group, which monitors extremist websites, said Daesh supporters were celebrating the attack.
Sources familiar with the police operation said the suspect was a 29-year-old whose residence had been raided earlier in the day in connection with a robbery during the summer. The suspect was not in the building at the time.
President Emmanuel Macron was being updated as events unfurled, an Elysee Palace official said. Castaner was on his way to Strasbourg, which lies on the border with Germany.
The gunman entered the market over a bridge at about 8 PM (1900 GMT) before opening fire, the prefecture said, adding that the suspect was a known security risk and on a watch list.
A spokesperson for the European Parliament (EP) said the building had been shut down and staff ordered to stay inside.
“My thoughts are with the victims of the Strasbourg shooting, which I condemn with the utmost firmness,” tweeted Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, the EU executive.
“Strasbourg is an excellent symbol of peace and European Democracy. Values that we will always defend.”
“This Parliament will not be intimidated by terrorist or criminal attacks,” EP President Antonio Tajani tweeted. “We will continue to work and react strengthened by freedom and democracy against terrorist violence.”
Some 26,000 individuals suspected of posing a security risk to France are on the “Fiche S” watchlist, of whom about 10,000 are believed to have been radicalised, sometimes in worshipping places, online or abroad.
European security agencies have feared for some time that militants who left Europe to fight for Daesh in Syria and Iraq would return after the group’s defeat, with the skills and motivation to carry out attacks at home.
Secular France has been grappling with how to respond to both homegrown extremists and foreign militants following attacks in Paris, Nice, Marseille, and beyond since 2015.
In 2016, a truck ploughed into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, killing more than 80 people, while in November 2015, coordinated militant attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris claimed about 130 lives. There have also been attacks in Paris on a policeman on the Champs-Elysees avenue, the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, and a kosher store.
Almost exactly two years ago, a Tunisian extremist rammed a hijacked truck into a Christmas market in central Berlin, killing 11 people as well as the driver.