Sunday 20 October 2019

Police hunt through eastern France for Strasbourg Christmas market attacker

French police officers patrol next to Notre-Dame cathedral of Strasbourg following a shooting in the city of Strasbourg, eastern France, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Jean Francois Badias)
French police officers patrol next to Notre-Dame cathedral of Strasbourg following a shooting in the city of Strasbourg, eastern France, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Jean Francois Badias)
French police officers stand guards in the street of the scene following a shooting in the city of Strasbourg, eastern France, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Jean Francois Badias)
Police work at an area after a shooting in Strasbourg, France December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Police searched through eastern France on Wednesday for a man suspected of killing at least two people in a gun attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg and who was known to have been religiously radicalised while in jail.

Witnesses told investigators the assailant cried out "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greater) as he launched his attack on the market, the Paris prosecutor said.

The prosecutor, Remy Heitz, also suggested the suspect may have chosen his target for its religious symbolism.

"Considering the target, his way of operating, his profile and the testimonies of those who heard him yell 'Allahu Akbar', the anti-terrorist police has been called into action," Heitz told a news conference.

Officials said Cherif Chekatt has a lengthy criminal record including several serious cases of robbery.

The official said his apartment was searched by police on Tuesday morning - hours before the shooting - in an investigation over an attempted murder but he was not at home.

Security forces secure area where a suspect is sought after a shooting in Strasbourg, France, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
Security forces secure area where a suspect is sought after a shooting in Strasbourg, France, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

A spokesperson for Germany's BKA criminal police said on Wednesday that the man was imprisoned in Germany in 2016 and 2017 on theft charges.

The spokeswoman added that the suspect was deported to France in 2017 and was also known to French authorities as a "radical Islamist".

In the wake of the attack, authorities have launched a terror investigation, with interior minister Christophe Castaner saying 350 officers are hunting for the gunman who was known to security services.

Mr Castaner said the gunman, from the city in eastern France, exchanged fire with law enforcement as he "sowed terror".

Rescue teams work at the scene of shooting in Strasbourg, France, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
Rescue teams work at the scene of shooting in Strasbourg, France, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

The French government has increased its security alert system Vigipirate to its highest level.

Mr Castaner said: "Three hundred and fifty police and gendarmes are currently on the ground to apprehend the suspect, supported by two helicopters, the RAID (French anti-terror police), the BRI (anti-gang brigade) and the Sentinel force.

"The government has decided to move the security level to "Emergency Attack" with stricter controls at the borders, and the implementation of reinforced controls on all the Christmas markets that are taking place in France to avoid the risk of copycat attacks."

The suspect was shot and injured by soldiers guarding the Christmas market but he escaped in a taxi, BFM TV said.

Police secure a street and the surrounding area after a shooting in Strasbourg, France, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
Police secure a street and the surrounding area after a shooting in Strasbourg, France, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

He was said to have entered central Strasbourg via the Corbeau bridge to the south of the city centre, before heading to Rue des Orfevres, a popular shopping street close to the cathedral, where he opened fire at around 8pm local time (7pm GMT).

In the aftermath, residents were urged to stay indoors and the nearby European Parliament was placed on lockdown.

Antonio Tajani, the president of the parliament, said: "This parliament will not be intimidated by terrorist or criminal attacks. Let us move on. We will continue to work and react strengthened by freedom and democracy against terrorist violence."

Fans attending a basketball game were also kept behind and began to sing the French national anthem in "homage to the victims".

The Christmas market was closed on Wednesday and flags lowered to half-mast.

The mayor of Strasbourg Roland Ries tweeted: "A book of condolences will be opened at the Town Hall from today.

"I want to thank the people of Strasbourg and visitors to the city for their patience and understanding."

President Emmanuel Macron, who attended a Interdepartmental Crisis Centre meeting, left without speaking to reporters but later tweeted the "solidarity of the entire nation" is with Strasbourg, the victims and their families".

France has been hit by several extremist attacks in recent years, including the 2015 Paris shootings which left 130 people dead and wounded hundreds more.

In 2016 a truck was driven into Bastille Day crowds in Nice, killing 86 people and leaving hundreds injured.

Twelve people were killed and 48 were injured when a man drove a truck into crowds at a Christmas market in Berlin in 2016.

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