Four people were killed and 11 wounded at a mass shooting near a world-famous Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, on Tuesday, officials said. The carnage led to a broad lockdown and major security operation but the shooter remains at large – although he was wounded by soldiers guarding the market, an official said.
The gunman has been identified and has a criminal record, according to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. The prefect of the Strasbourg region said the gunman had been flagged as a suspected extremist.
Stephane Morisse from the FGP Police union said that authorities went to the alleged assailant’s residence earlier on Tuesday to arrest him, but the 29-year-old, who is suspected of ties to radicalism wasn’t there. Morisse says police found explosive materials at the home.
Morisse said that following the shooting, soldiers guarding the Christmas market shot and wounded the suspect before he escaped.
French prosecutors said a terrorism investigation was opened into the shooting, though authorities haven’t announced a motive. It’s unclear if the market – which was the focus of an al-Qaeda plot in 2000 – was targeted. The city is also home to the European Parliament, which was locked down after the shooting.
The attack came as France has been wracked by four weeks of protests against President Emmanuel Macron, and police forces have been stretched by fighting rioting and other protest-related unrest. Macron himself adjourned a meeting at the presidential palace on Tuesday night to be able to monitor the events, his office said, indicating the gravity of the attack.
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, Castaner said.
In multiple neighbourhoods of Strasbourg, the French Interior Ministry called on the public to remain indoors. French soldiers were on patrol after the shooting. “Our security and rescue services are mobilised,” Castaner said.
Local authorities tweeted for the public to “avoid the area of the police station,” which is close to the city’s Christmas market. Strasbourg’s well-known market is set up around the city’s cathedral during the Christmas period and becomes a major gathering place.
Images from the scene show police officers, police vehicles and barricades surrounding the sparkling lights of the market.
European Parliament spokesman Jaume Duch said that “the European Parliament has been closed and no one can leave until further notice”. It wasn’t immediately clear how many people were inside.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that “my thoughts are with the victims of the shooting … Strasbourg is like no other a city which is a symbol of peace and European democracy”.
France has been hit by several extremist attacks, including the 2015 Paris shootings, which killed 130 people and wounded hundreds, and a truck attack in Nice that killed dozens in 2016.
Some Strasbourg residents have reported on social media that they heard gunfire in some parts of the city centre.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe tweeted that “the situation is still underway, priority is given to security forces and rescuers.”
Strasbourg, about 500 kilometres (310 miles) east of Paris, is on the border with Germany.
The drama recalled a millennial terror plot on Strasbourg’s Christmas market that still marks the collective memory.
Ten suspected Islamic militants were convicted and sentenced to prison in December 2004 for their role in a plot to blow up the market on New Year’s Eve 2000.
The Algerian and French-Algerian suspects – including an alleged associate of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden – went on trial in October on charges they were involved in the foiled plot for the attack.
They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to nine years.