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Dec 12, 2018

France declares deadly shooting at Strasbourg Christmas market to be an act of terrorism

By James McAuley

Journalists work in a street at the scene of a police operation the day after a shooting in Strasbourg, France, Dec. 12, 2018. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

James McAuley
Foreign correspondent focusing on French and European politics and culture
STRASBOURG, France — The attack on France’s largest Christmas market by a man with a long criminal record was an act of terrorism, announced the Paris prosecutor on Wednesday.
A manhunt is still underway for the suspect who was wounded during the attack in the eastern city of Strasbourg and has been identified by media as 29-year-old Cherif Chekkat. Authorities have only referred to him so far by his first name.
Paris Prosecutor Rémy Heitz, who leads terrorism investigations said the suspect had 27 criminal convictions in France, Germany and Switzerland. He said two people were killed outright while a third was left in a vegetative state. The attack also wounded 13 others, eight of whom are in critical condition.
Earlier, a top Interior Ministry official, Laurent Nunez, said police had gone to the suspect’s home the morning of the attack to arrest him in connection with an attempted murder, but he was not there.
He said the suspect was known to security services and became radicalized during one of his many stints in prison. He was last released from French prison in 2015 but German authorities say he was then arrested and imprisoned for theft across the border before being deported back to France in 2017.
On Tuesday night, the attacker sprayed gunfire into the Strasbourg Christmas market, one of the largest in France. He then exchanged fire with police and soldiers protecting the market, wounding one soldier lightly and getting shot in the hand himself.
He commandeered a taxi and fled the scene. The taxi driver later went to police and described the man as armed with a handgun and knife and wounded, according to Heitz, the prosecutor.
Nunez said it is possible he has fled the country.
Some 350 members of security forces are on the scene in Strasbourg, a city on the German border that is also one of the homes of the European Parliament, which was in session at the time of the shooting. Four people with connections to the suspect have been detained for questioning, according to Heitz.
The lockdown around the city has now been lifted and schools are open on Wednesday, but the country remains on high alert, with border controls tightened and extra security at the other Christmas markets around France.
Local police said the assailant crossed the Corbeau Bridge, entering the area of the Christmas market, before opening fire on the Rue des Orfevres closer to the center.
Witnesses interviewed on French TV described two hails of bullets in the frigid Strasbourg night, about 8 p.m. One restaurant owner said he heard the shooting, ran in front of his establishment and saw a body lying outside on the ground. Many shops in the city center closed their doors and hid their frightened customers inside.
Europe has a centuries-old tradition of Christmas markets in the weeks ahead of the holiday, where revelers can drink mulled wine, listen to carolers and shop for gifts in a bid to cheer up the long nights on the continent. In recent years, the markets have become targets for terrorism, both because they draw crowds and because they have ties to religion.
Strasbourg, in particular, has been a high-profile target. In 2000, al-Qaeda-linked operatives planned to target the Strasbourg Cathedral and Christmas market on New Year’s Eve, a plan intercepted by German and French authorities. Fourteen people were later convicted of participating in the terrorist plot in both French and German courts.
In 2016, 12 people were killed at a Berlin market when a truck plowed through a crowd. That year, several arrests were made in November in Strasbourg, and city authorities threatened to cancel the market if it received serious threats.
Although France has been on high alert since terrorist attacks in November 2015, before Tuesday there had been no significant attacks in 2018. Headlines have been dominated by political protests instead, some of them violent, as yellow-vested activists have taken to the streets to contest President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies.
Nunez said all protests would be banned for now in Strasbourg but could go ahead elsewhere in the country.
Luisa Beck in Berlin and Paul Schemm contributed to this report.
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