France: The shooting at a crowded street market in Strasbourg, France, was an act of terrorism, officials said Wednesday, as the police continued an intensive search for the gunman who killed at least two people and wounded 12 others.
Officials said the man suspected of carrying out the shooting had a criminal record and had served time in prison. More than 700 members of the security forces are now searching for the suspect in Strasbourg, the French interior minister said.
The European parliament, which is sitting in Strasbourg, was put on lockdown, and the parliament’s safety awareness division sent a message to MEPs advising those dining in the city centre to “please stay inside and don’t go out”.
“[A] decision has been taken, as a precautionary measure, to close the European parliament building in Strasbourg. We ask you to stay calm and safe within [European parliament] premises,” it read.
Later, Antonio Tajani, the president of the parliament, said it would not be ‘“intimidated” by terrorism.
Several MEPs in city centre restaurants reported hearing gunfire. The Yorkshire and Humber MEP Richard Corbett tweeted that he was dining in the city “where shots (were) fired”. The restaurant was “not letting anyone in or out”, he added.
British PM Theresa May said she was “shocked and saddened” by the “terrible” attack in Strasbourg. “My thoughts are with all of those affected and with the French people,” the British prime minister tweeted.
Police in Germany said they were strengthening controls at the Franco-German border near Strasbourg. The police force of Baden-Württemberg, a state in south-west Germany bordering Strasbourg, tweeted they were taking the extra measures at the border because of the shooting. The transnational tramway between France and Germany was suspended.
Rémy Heitz, the Paris prosecutor, who handles terrorism investigations nationwide, said at a news conference in Strasbourg on Wednesday that witnesses had heard the attacker yell “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic, and that the targets and the suspect’s profile justified the opening of a terrorism investigation.
“He had been incarcerated multiple times and was known to the prison administration for his radicalization and his proselytizing attitude,” Mr. Heitz said of the suspect, identified only as Chérif C., 29, who was born in Strasbourg. He was released from prison in late 2015.
Chérif C. was one of about 20,000 people flagged for possible radicalization by the French security services, and was also flagged with what is known in France as a Fiche S, or an S File, Mr. Heitz said. Four people in the suspect’s entourage were taken into custody overnight, he added.
“The attacker, who was on the S list (of extremists watched by police), is actively being hunted by security forces,” local officials said in a statement.
It is believed he had close links to radical Islamist groups in the Meinau neighbourhood of Strasbourg. The job of French investigators is now to determine what drove Cherif C to open fire at the city’s Christmas market.
The attack Tuesday night hit one of France’s most popular Christmas markets, unleashing chaos among the thousands of people milling around the vendors’ stalls dotting Strasbourg’s historical neighborhood.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, immediately held a crisis meeting at the interior ministry in Paris.
The French Deputy Interior Minister also hinted that the suspect may have fled France via Strasbourg.
Some 25,000 people are currently on the “S” extremism watchlist, 9,700 of them for radicalism “linked mainly to Islamist terror movements,” according to the interior ministry.
Pro-IS group al-Taqwa Media released a poster celebrating the shooting attack, but despite celebrations on pro-IS jihadi forums, there hasn’t been an official claim from the Islamic State group.
Since the shooting and failure to arrest the suspect so far, France has raised its threat level to its maximum limit.
UPDATE – 14th December 2018:
French police have shot dead the man who attacked Strasbourg’s Christmas market on Tuesday, the French interior minister said on Thursday.
A police unit came across Cherif Chekatt in a Strasbourg street and shot him after he opened fire.
Three people have died following the shooting at the market and several more were seriously injured.
Chekatt, 29, had a string of criminal convictions in France and Germany and had become a radical Islamist in jail.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said three police officers had spotted a man matching Chekatt’s description on rue du Lazaret, in the Neudorf area of Strasbourg at 21:00 local time (20:00 GMT).
As the police moved to stop him, the suspect turned round and opened fire. They fired back and “neutralised” the attacker, said Mr Castaner, who later went to the scene.
Five people have been arrested in connection with the attack. They include Cherif Chekatt’s parents and two of his brothers.
— Christophe Castaner (@CCastaner) December 13, 2018
Just an hour after reports surfaced that Chekatt has been killed, Islamic State’s official Amaq Agency released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack. The Amaq claim said that the attacker was a soldier of the Islamic State and responded to call for targeting citizens of coalition countries.
Hours before the reports of Chekatt’s death surfaced, Islamic State had also released its weekly al-Naba magazine issue no. 160, which contained an article on the Strasbourg attack, but stopped short of claiming credit, keeping the old IS tradition alive of not claiming credit until the attacker is confirmed dead.
Chekatt had 27 convictions for crimes including robbery spanning France, Germany and Switzerland, and had spent considerable time in prison as a result.
The death of Kamal Naghchband, originally from Afghanistan, was announced on Thursday. The father of three died in hospital. His mosque announced that his funeral will take place after Friday prayers.
A retired bank worker aged 61, from Strasbourg, was also killed in the attack, according to Le Figaro.
The third victim is believed to be a Thai tourist who was on holiday with his wife.
Anupong Suebsamarn, 45, has been named by Thai media as one of the dead.
UPDATE – 17th December 2018
A fourth and fifth person wounded during an attack at a Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg have died, according to authorities and relatives.
The fourth person died as a result of a shooting attack this week at the famed Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, French authorities said on Friday.
“My brother Barto Pedro Orent-Niedzielski has just passed away. He thanks you for the love and strength you have given him,” Jakub, the brother of the 36-year-old victim from the Polish city of Katowice, wrote on Facebook.
This story will be updated in case of new information.
Check out ITCT’s Threat Meter to get the latest updates on the threat level in France.