France raises security threat as police launch manhunt after a gunman opened fire near a Christmas market in Strasbourg.
A lone gunman has shot dead at least three people and wounded 12 others near a Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg before fleeing the scene, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has confirmed.
A manhunt was under way after the attacker opened fire at around 8pm local time (19:00 GMT) on Tuesday on one of the city’s busiest streets, sending crowds of evening shoppers fleeing for safety.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the gunman, who exchanged shots with security forces twice as he escaped, had evaded a police dragnet and was on the run.
“The government has raised its security threat to the highest level and is bolstering border controls,” Castaner told a late-night news conference held in the city. “We will also reinforce security at all Christmas markets to prevent copycat attacks.”
The motive was not immediately clear. The counterterrorism prosecutor opened an investigation while 350 security agents and two helicopters were hunting for the gunman.
Police identified the suspect as a 29-year-old, who was known to the intelligence services as a potential security risk.
Police union officials told The Associated Press news agency that authorities went to the alleged attacker’s residence earlier on Tuesday to arrest him, but the 29-year-old was not home.
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.
Later on Tuesday, police started to release thousands of people confined in buildings, in groups of about 100. A police helicopter is circling overhead, and entire neighbourhoods of the city -which lies on the border with Germany – remain cordoned off.
The European Parliament, which is sitting in Strasbourg this week, was put into lockdown.
Emmanuel Maurel, a member of European parliament, said he had heard the shots.
“From my hotel window I saw passersby dragging someone who was injured and onlookers panicking,” he wrote on Twitter. “Soldiers and police have cordoned off the area. We’re being told to stay in the hotel.”
A local shopkeeper told BFM TV that the shooting lasted for about 10 minutes. “There were gunshots and people running everywhere,” the shopkeeper added.
The Christmas market was being held amid tight security this year, with unauthorised vehicles excluded from surrounding streets during opening hours and checkpoints set up on bridges and access points to search pedestrians’ bags.
A Reuters news agency 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.
Resident Yoann Bazard told AP by telephone that he heard “two or three shots” and screams before he went to a window and saw people running.
“After that I closed the shutters. Then I heard more shots, closer this time,” the 27-year-old said.
“There were two or three episodes like that … As it got close, it was really shocking. There were a lot of screams.”
President Emmanuel Macron was informed of the shooting and was being updated as events unfurled, an Elysee Palace official said.
“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.”
France has been put on alert in recent years after attacks targeted large, crowded spaces.
In 2016, a truck ploughed into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, killing more than 80 people, while in November 2015, coordinated attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris claimed about 130 lives.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attacks.
There have also been attacks in Paris on a policeman on the Champs-Elysees avenue, the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher store.
SOURCE: NEWS AGENCIES