French and German police were continuing to hunt on Wednesday night for the gunman who killed three people and injured 13 others in an attack on Strasbourg’s Christmas market.
Suspect Chérif Chekatt is a hardened criminal who was on France’s national security list as a potential terror threat, the county’s authorities have admitted.
Witnesses said the man shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he shot into the crowds and slashed at passersby with a knife.
Two victims died at the scene and a third was said to have been left “brain dead”. Six people were critically injured.
The public prosecutor Rémy Heitz told journalists the attack was being investigated as terrorism-linked.
Some 720 members of the French security forces were today searching for Chekatt, a 29-year-old born in Strasbourg.
German federal police also confirmed they were searching for Chekatt and his brother in case they have crossed the border into Germany. At the German-French border in Kehl all cars leaving France are being controlled by the German police, and there are controls at three other border points.
German authorities rejected criticism of their extradition of Chekatt, who had previous convictions in Germany, saying his sentence had been served. According to records in Germany, Chekatt was convicted of crimes no less than 27 times in Germany, France and Switzerland.
Before the attack on Tuesday, he gave police the slip when they went to arrest him in connection with an attempted murder. He was not home, but a stun grenade, a rifle and ammunition along with four knives, two of them hunting knives, were found in a search of his apartment.
When the suspect began shooting in the city centre just before 8pm on Tuesday, police quickly identified him as the same man they had been looking to arrest.
Laurent Nuñez, the secretary of state for the interior ministry, said the failed arrest might be one reason for the attack.
Heitz said the man walked through several streets “at the heart of the Christmas market” shortly before 8pm. “All along this route he opened fire several times with a handgun and used a knife with which he seriously injured and killed.
“Faced with four soldiers from Opération Sentinelle, he fired at them and was targeted back and was injured in the arm.” Opération Sentinelle is a nationwide security operation established after a series of terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015.
The gunman then took a 10-minute taxi to the Neudorf district south-east of the centre.
“The taxi driver said the individual asked him to take him to this district without giving an address, saying he would give him directions,” Heitz said. “The taxi driver added he saw the suspect in possession of a handgun and that he was injured. To explain his injuries, the individual told of what he had done in the centre of Strasbourg by saying he had shot at soldiers and killed 10 people.
“The taxi driver said the individual made statements justifying what he claimed he had done.”
Chekatt, getting out of the taxi, came into contact with police and there was another exchange of fire.
One of those killed was Anupong Suebsamarn, a 45-year-old Thai tourist who had been travelling with his wife. The other victim was not immediately named.
Among those injured was an Italian journalist, Antonio Megalizzi, 28, who was in a coma and fighting for his life after being “hit in the head by a bullet” fired by the attacker, his girlfriend’s father Danilo Moresco told Italian media.
Heitz said the suspect had been convicted 27 times, mostly for acts of “theft and violence” committed in France, Germany and Switzerland and had been jailed many times. He drew the attention of France’s security services for his “radicalisation and proselytising attitude” while jailed in 2015 and had been under surveillance.
He was on France’s “Fiche S”, a national register of those considered a potential risk to national security. The list includes suspected Islamist extremists but also major criminals, political militants and anarchists.
Castaner, in the early hours of Wednesday, announced France was raising its security level to the highest alert. This means imposing border controls with neighbouring Germany where officials admitted the suspect could have fled.
Police arrested and detained four people – understood to be Chekatt’s mother, father and brothers – after raiding addresses linked to the suspect overnight. After the shootings, police cut off major roads into and out of the city.
Strasbourg’s Christmas market, which started in 1570, is one of France’s most popular seasonal events. The Grande Île where the market is held is surrounded by water, with the River Ill on one side and the Canal du Faux-Rempart on the other, and is accessible only by bridges.
In the hours after the attack – with the gunman still on the loose – the city centre of Strasbourg had been put on lockdown.
In the city centre, Thibault, 21, a business and marketing student, was outside with a group of friends having a cigarette near a bar in the cathedral area at about 8pm when the attack started. “There was a man who had seen the gunman and he came running at us, shouting to get inside,” he said. “We went up to the second floor of the bar and dozens of us hid there. It was confusing and scary. The mood here now is morose. When you think about it, perhaps it isn’t that surprising. We knew this city could one day be a target.”
Since the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015, the event has been held under high security. Access to the area is controlled and visitors’ bags are searched. Vehicles have been banned from the area.
In 2016, a truck was deliberately driven into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 56 others. The perpetrator, Anis Amri, a Tunisian who had failed to gain asylum in Germany, was killed four days later in a shootout with police near Milan in Italy.
The attack comes during a period of intense tension across France after four weeks of civil unrest by anti-government protesters from the gilets jaunes movement.
Additional reporting by Angela Giuffrida and Kate Connolly
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