French authorities detained five people as they hunted Wednesday for a suspected extremist who sprayed gunfire at one of Europe’s most famous Christmas markets in the eastern city of Strasbourg.
The government raised the security alert level and sent police reinforcements to Strasbourg, where some 350 security forces are searching for the assailant, while French President Emmanuel Macron was holding an emergency security meeting at the presidential palace in Paris with top officials, including the prime minister, interior, defence and foreign affairs ministers.
Police have identified the suspect as Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt, 29. Police say he was wounded in a gunfight with soldiers after the Tuesday night attack but escaped, and a top official said he might have gone to neighbouring Germany.
Prosecutor Remy Heitz said the suspected gunman was shot in the arm during the exchange of fire and then took a taxi to another part of the city during the rampage.
Heitz said the man was armed with a handgun and a knife, using them to attack his victims. He also left 12 people injured.
Originally, French authorities had said the gunman killed three people. But Heitz said two people were confirmed dead while the third was brain dead.
Police officers check cars as a result of the investigation in Lauterbourg, France, at the border crossing the country shares with the German city of Woerth. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
Senior Interior Ministry official Laurent Nunez said the suspect had been radicalized in prison and had been monitored by French intelligence services since his release from jail in late 2015, because of his suspected religious extremism.
Nunez said on France-Inter radio that police sought to arrest the man on Tuesday morning, hours before the shooting, in relation to an attempted murder. He was not at home but five other people were detained, authorities said.
Heitz said police found a grenade, a rifle and four knives during the search.
A spokesperson for Germany’s BKA criminal police said Wednesday the suspect had been imprisoned in Germany in 2016 and 2017 on theft charges, and was deported to France in 2017.
The attack is a new blow to France, after a wave of Islamic extremist killings in 2015 and 2016, and amid a month of protests against President Emmanuel Macron that have blocked roads around the country, led to rioting in the capital and put heavy strain on police.
Witnesses described shots and screams after the gunman opened fire at the Christmas market Tuesday evening in a city that’s home to the European Parliament and considers itself a capital of Europe — and promotes itself as the “capital of Christmas.” For several hours swaths of the city were under lockdown.
While authorities urged people in the area to stay inside after Tuesday’s attack, Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries told BFM television Wednesday that “life must go on” so that the city doesn’t cede to a “terrorist who is trying to disrupt our way of life.”
The assailant got inside a security zone around the venue and opened fire from there, Mayor Roland Ries said on BFM television.
A placard reads ‘Tribute to the victims. I am Strasbourg,’ in Strasbourg on Wednesday. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)
“I heard two or three shots at around 7:55 p.m., then I heard screams. I got close to the window. I saw people running. After that I closed the shutters. Then I heard more shots, closer this time,” said Yoann Bazard, 27, who lives in central Strasbourg.
“I thought maybe it’s firecrackers,” he said, speaking by phone. “And then, as it got close, it was really shocking. There were a lot of screams. … There were police or soldiers shouting ‘Get inside!’ and ‘Put your hands on your head.”‘
In Germany, interior ministry spokesperson Eleonore Petermann said there’s no reason to stay away from Christmas markets there. A Christmas market in Berlin was targeted in a deadly attack two years ago.