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Strasbourg attack: Gunman who killed three people at Christmas market identified

The killer opened fire at around 8pm on one of the city’s busiest streets.

Policemen secure the entrance to the Strasbourg Christmas Market after three people were killed in a shooting attack
Policemen secure the entrance to the Strasbourg Christmas Market after three people were killed in a shooting attack
Image: Christoph Schmidt via PA Images

Updated Dec 12th 2018, 11:30 AM

HUNDREDS OF SECURITY forces have been deployed in the hunt for a lone gunman who killed at least three people and wounded 13 others at the famed Christmas market in Strasbourg, with the French government raising the security alert level and reinforcing border controls.

Police union officials identified the suspected assailant as Cherif Chekatt, a 29-year-old with a thick police record for crimes including armed robbery. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to publicly discuss details of the large and ongoing investigation.

“The attacker, who was on the S list (of extremists watched by police), is actively being hunted by security forces,” local officials earlier said in a statement.

It said some “350 policemen and gendarmes are still deployed on the ground,” backed up by helicopters, elite units and soldiers deployed as part of a long-term nationwide anti-terrorism operation.

The attack took place at around 8pm (7pm) yesterday on one of the busiest streets of Strasbourg, sending crowds of shoppers fleeing for safety.

Soldiers patrolling the area as part of regular anti-terror operations exchanged fire with the suspect and wounded him, but could not stop him escaping, police sources said. A soldier was slightly injured by a ricohet from a shot by the gunman.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner earlier said France had raised its security alert level to “emergency attack” with “the implementation of reinforced border controls and tightened controls on all Christmas markets in France to avoid the risk of a copycat” attack.

The gunman has been identified and was on a watchlist of suspected extremists, a statement from local security services said.

Senior Interior Ministry official Laurent Nunez said the man had been radicalised 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, secretary of state for the Interior Ministry, said on France-Inter radio that police sought to arrest the man on yesterday morning, hours before the shooting, in relation to an attempted murder. He was not at home but five other people were detained, authorities said.

High alert

France’s security forces, already on high alert after a series of terror attacks since 2015, are particularly stretched at the moment due to anti-government protests that have swept the country.

“I heard shooting and then there was pandemonium,” one witness, who gave his name as Fatih, told AFP. “People were running everywhere.” 

He said he had seen three people injured on the ground only a few metres from the giant Christmas tree in the centre of the city.

Shortly after the shooting, lines of police vehicles and ambulances streamed into the market area, under festive lights declaring the city the “capital of Christmas”. 

Attack near Strasbourg Christmas Market - border controls Police officers at the Franco-German border in Kehl check all vehicles leaving Strasbourg Source: Christoph Schmidt via PA Images

“We heard several shots, three perhaps, and we saw people running,” one witness told AFP, asking not to be named.

“One of them fell down, I don’t know whether it was because she was tripped up or if she was hit,” the witness said.

President Emmanuel Macron expressed on Twitter the solidarity of the whole nation after holding a crisis meeting with cabinet officials in Paris.

Known to police

Two separate security sources told AFP on condition of anonymity that the shooter was believed to be a 29-year-old from the city, whose name was given as Cherif, and who was set to be arrested on Tuesday morning.

He was being investigated over an attempted murder, one of the sources said.

Several areas neighbouring the Christmas market were sealed off on last night and residents were being told to stay indoors.

Many people took refuge in local restaurants and bars which pulled down their shutters.

“We let everyone inside, down into the wine cellar. They’re locked in there,” local restaurant owner Mouad, 33, told AFP.

A police source, again speaking on condition of anonymity, said security forces had opened fire in an area of the city where the suspect was thought to be hiding.

The source did not give the address and it was unclear if the shooter had been located.

Attack near Strasbourg Christmas Market Police forces secure an entrance to the Old Town and thus to the Christmas market Source: Christoph Schmidt via PA Images

Specialist anti-terror prosecutors have opened an investigation into the incident in Strasbourg, which lies on the border with Germany.

Several residents of the city have been detained in recent years for trying to reach jihadist groups in Syria, or have been arrested upon their return. 

“Shocked and saddened by the terrible attack in Strasbourg. My thoughts are with all of those affected and with the French people,” British Prime Minister Theresa May wrote on Twitter.

Tourist attraction

The Strasbourg-based European Parliament was also on lockdown, with MEPs, staff and journalists unable to leave the building.

In a parliament bar usually reserved for MEPs, EU commissioners, powerful legislators and staffers huddled in small groups waiting for developments.

“Our first thought was for colleagues who had already made it to the centre of town, who are safe,” Belgian MEP Kathleen Van Brempt told AFP. “Now we just wait.”

The Christmas market in Strasbourg and the city’s illuminations are an annual attraction that draws hundreds of thousands of people.

Attack near Strasbourg Christmas Market French policemen and soldiers secure a street in the old town Source: Christoph Schmidt via PA Images

Security has been stepped up in recent years after a series of attacks in France by Islamist gunmen and the Strasbourg market was long considered a possible target.

In 2016, a 23-year-old Tunisian killed 12 and injured 48 others when he ploughed a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.

Special anti-terror army units have been deployed in Strasbourg, and soldiers and armed police are regularly seen patrolling among the 300 wooden Christmas market chalets.

Three years after groups of jihadists gunned down and blew up 130 people in Paris on 13 November 2015, French counter-terror officials say their focus has shifted. 

Rather than coordinated attacks, their main concern is attacks by “lone wolves” – self-radicalised individuals acting without links to terror groups such as Islamic State.

Most recently a 20-year-old Chechnya-born man went on a knife rampage in central Paris last May, killing one man and injuring four other people on a Saturday night.

© – AFP 2018 with reporting from AP

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