A gunman on a security watch list 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.
Juncker: Strasbourg is a symbol of peace and European Democracy
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.”
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 U.S.-based Site intelligence group, which monitors jihadist websites, said Islamic State supporters were celebrating.
The attack began at about 8 p.m. (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 U.S. 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.”
The European Parliament, which is sitting in Strasbourg this week, was put into lockdown. On the opposite side of the Rhine river German police also tightened border controls, officials said.
Sources familiar with the police operation said the suspect’s home had been raided earlier in the day in connection with a robbery during the summer, but he was not found there.
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. Security was tight this year for the Christmas market, which is popular with visitors to the city’s old quarter, with its Gothic cathedral and half-timbered houses.
Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, the EU executive body, tweeted: “My thoughts are with the victims of the Strasbourg shooting, which I condemn with the utmost firmness. Strasbourg is an excellent symbol of peace and European Democracy. Values that we will always defend.”