STRASBOURG, France – A lone gunman shot dead at least two people and wounded 11 others near a Christmas market in the city of Strasbourg on Tuesday evening before fleeing, police said.
The motive was not immediately clear but, with France still on high alert after a wave of attacks commissioned or inspired by Islamic State militants since early 2015, the counter-terrorism prosecutor opened an investigation.
The gunman has been identified and has a criminal record, according to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. The prefect of the Strasbourg region says the gunman had been flagged as a suspected extremist.
The interior minister and the Paris prosecutor, who is in charge of anti-terror probes in France, headed Tuesday night to Strasbourg. The prosecutor’s office says the investigation is for murder and attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise.
Several of the wounded are in critical condition.
People in the city’s Neudorf area and Etoile park were told to stay where they were as officers hunted the shooter on the ground and from the air.
The European Parliament, which is sitting in Strasbourg this week, was put into lockdown.
“There were gunshots and people running everywhere,” one local shopkeeper told BFM TV. “It lasted about 10 minutes.”
The Christmas market was being held amid tight security this year, with unauthorized vehicles excluded from surrounding streets during opening hours and checkpoints set up on bridges and access points to search pedestrians’ bags.
A source at the prosecutor’s office said the motive for the shooting was not immediately clear.
A Reuters reporter was among 30 to 40 people being held in the basement of a supermarket for their own safety in central Strasbourg, waiting for police to clear the area. Lights were switched off and bottles of water handed out.
President Emmanuel Macron was informed of the shooting and was being updated as events unfurled, an Elysee Palace official said. Castaner was on his way to Strasbourg, which lies on the border with Germany.
A spokesman for the European Parliament said the building had been shut down and staff ordered to stay inside.
“My thoughts are with the victims of the Strasbourg shooting, which I condemn with the utmost firmness,” tweeted Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, the EU executive. “Strasbourg is an excellent symbol of peace and European Democracy. Values that we will always defend.”
European security agencies have feared for some time that Islamist militants who left Europe to fight for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq would return after the jihadist group’s defeat, with the skills and motivation to carry out attacks at home.
In 2016, a truck plowed into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, killing more than 80 people, while in November 2015, coordinated Islamist militant attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris claimed about 130 lives. There have also been attacks in Paris on a policeman on the Champs-Elysees avenue, the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher store.
Almost exactly two years ago, a Tunisian Islamist rammed a hijacked truck into a Christmas market in central Berlin, killing 11 people as well as the driver.
By Foo Yun Chee – Reuters
Additional reporting by Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg and Christian Hartmann, Emmanuel Jarry, Michel Rose and Inti Landauro in Paris and Kevin Liffey in London