Wednesday 23 October 2019

Gun terror suspect may have fled out of France, warn police

At least two dead and 13 injured in gun and knife attack on Christmas market in centre of Strasbourg

Tributes: People light candles at the Christmas market in Strasbourg where on Tuesday a man shot 14 people, killing at least two. Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
Tributes: People light candles at the Christmas market in Strasbourg where on Tuesday a man shot 14 people, killing at least two. Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

Henry Samuel

France says it cannot "rule out" that a suspected terrorist has fled to neighbouring Germany after killing at least two people and injuring 13 in the eastern city of Strasbourg.

Border controls have been strengthened and more than 600 people, including police, troops and helicopter crews, were on the heels of the attacker who had "sowed terror" in the city, interior minister Christophe Castaner said.

Asked whether he may have left France, deputy interior minister Laurent Nunez said: "That cannot be ruled out."

According to 'Der Spiegel', the assailant had been in prison in Germany until 2017 on a sentence for a "serious" theft, after which he was expelled to France.

The gunman, Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt (29), was on an "S" security and terror watch-list. Witnesses said the suspect shouted "Allahu Akhbar" as he fired at pedestrians and used his knife.

According to Strasbourg prosecutor Rémy Heitz, Chekatt has 27 previous convictions in Germany, Switzerland and France, and was placed on the terror watch-list while in prison in 2015 after he showed signs of radicalisation.

Four of the attacker's acquaintances were also detained by police. Questions were being raised over how the assailant had managed to evade capture on Tuesday morning. Police were due to arrest him for attempted murder after a botched armed robbery but he had escaped and a long rifle and stun grenade were found at his home.

Shortly before 8pm on Tuesday, the assailant went on the rampage in Strasbourg's city centre in the bustling Rue des Ofrèvres, armed with an automatic pistol and knife. Police reported the attacker was shot and wounded by patrolling soldiers before he fled the scene.

According to France Info, the suspect took a taxi driver hostage to escape soldiers. The driver reportedly escaped unharmed and said the gunman had a wounded arm.

Chekatt justified his acts to the driver and said he had "shot at soldiers and killed 10 people", according to Mr Heitz.

The mayor of Strasbourg, Roland Ries, said the gunman got inside a security zone of the Christmas market to stage the attack.

He said police had narrowly missed catching the suspect on Tuesday at around 10pm. "There was an exchange of fire. Police told me that they were waiting for him on a cycle path.

"And when he approached them in the dark, they shone a torch in his face, which blinded him, but he immediately opened fire. They riposted and it may have been at this time that he was wounded," he told France Info.

The gunman managed to flee, said police. One of the soldiers was wounded in the hand in the exchange.

"The government has raised its security threat to the highest level and is bolstering border controls," Mr Castaner told a late-night news conference.

"We will also reinforce security at all Christmas markets to prevent copycat attacks."

Mr Castaner said the suspect has an existing criminal record. According to 'Le Figaro', he has 20 previous convictions. More than 12 hours after the bloodshed, the regional prefect said that 13 other people had been injured, eight in a critical condition.

Terrified residents and tourists sought cover in bars and restaurants and footage on social media showed at least one victim lying on the ground as others screamed. A local man named Philippe told Europe 1 radio: "I saw a person on the ground, unconscious and bleeding. There was another person on the ground just behind, and one or two more a bit further along the street."

One eyewitness, who tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate a man shot by the gunman, said: "I saw one person lying there, a tourist from Thailand accompanied by his wife or girlfriend was unhurt. We tried resuscitation efforts for 45 minutes."

The European Parliament was in lockdown, with MEPs, staff and journalists unable to leave the building, a few kilometres from the square.

Across the city centre people were ordered to stay put, with 5,000 spectators held back at a basketball game until after 1am. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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