STRASBOURG, France (AP) — Hundreds of security forces combed eastern France for a 29-year-old man with a long criminal record who shouted “God is great!” in Arabic and sprayed gunfire during a deadly rampage in Strasbourg’s famous Christmas market, officials said.
Tuesday night’s attack at the Christmas market in Strasbourg killed two people, left a third brain-dead and injured 12, and was a stark reminder to a nation wounded by previous assaults that terrorism remains a threat, even as anti-government protests roil the country.
National police distributed a photo of the wounded fugitive, identified as Cherif Chekatt, with the warning: “Individual dangerous, above all do not intervene.”
France raised its three-stage threat index to the highest level and bolstered troops around France.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told lawmakers that the French native, born in Strasbourg, had run-ins with police starting at age 10 and his first conviction at age 13.
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Chekatt had been convicted 27 times, mostly in France but also in Switzerland and Germany, for crimes including armed robbery. He had been flagged for extremism and was on a watch list, but the interior minister said “the signs were weak.”
The emerging profile seemed to point to an increasingly common hybrid extremist who moves from acts of delinquency to sowing terror.
“It’s a large zone and the search is difficult,” senior Interior Ministry official Laurent Nunez said on France-Inter radio. Strasbourg is on the border with Germany, where the suspect was convicted in 2016 of breaking into a dental practice and a pharmacy in two towns.
His parents and two brothers, also known for radicalism, were detained, a judicial official said.
Prosecutor Remy Heitz said the man attacked with a handgun and a knife about 8 p.m. Tuesday, and was shot in the arm during an exchange of fire with soldiers during his rampage. He then took a taxi to another part of the city, boasting of the attack to the driver, and later exchanged more gunfire with police and disappeared, Heitz said.
Witnesses described shots and screams after the gunman opened fire and yelled “God is great!” in Arabic, the prosecutor added. Swaths of the city were under lockdown for hours.
The dead included a Thai tourist, 45-year-old Anupong Suebsamarn, according to Thai Foreign Ministry and the website of the Khao Sod newspaper. It quoted his uncle as saying he and his wife had originally planned to visit Paris, but the protests there prompted them to change plans and go to Strasbourg instead.
One Italian was reported to be among the wounded. Italian media said Antonio Megalizzi, 28, was in critical condition. Italian daily La Repubblica reported he was in Strasbourg to follow the session of the European Parliament.
After initially reporting that three people had died, authorities revised that and said one was brain-dead, while 12 people were wounded, six of them gravely.
About 720 police, soldiers and SWAT team officers in Strasbourg were being reinforced with 500 more soldiers and another 1,300 in the coming days to guard public places, especially other Christmas markets, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said after a crisis meeting. The government raised the security level after the attack.
The attack in the heart of old Strasbourg, near its famous cathedral and within the Christmas market that draws many tourists, unsettled the border city that also is home to the European Parliament.
The German government said it had stepped up controls on the border with France but did not change its threat level.
“All terrorist attacks touch all of France, and it’s plain to see each of the attacks have hit a highly symbolic point or moment,” Philippe told parliament. He listed violence since 2015 that killed more than 200: at the Charlie Hebdo satiric newspaper, a Kosher store, restaurants, bars and a concert hall in Paris; along the famed seaside promenade in Nice; and even inside a church in a quiet suburb of the northern city of Rouen, among others.
Strasbourg’s Christmas market “is a family and brotherly celebration that speaks about hope and what unites us. It’s this celebration that was hit yesterday by a terrorist act,” he said.
The city was in mourning, with candles lit at the site of the attack, and the Christmas market was closed at least through Thursday, according to regional prefect Jean-Luc Marx.
The attack came as President Emmanuel Macron sought to take back control of the nation after a month of anti-government protests that have spread violence across the country. It came only 24 hours after he broke a long public silence and appealed for calm amid the mushrooming “yellow vest” protest movement that seeks a better standard of living for ordinary citizens. He offered a package of measures, but it wasn’t clear if that would halt the weekend protests.
“The terrorist threat is still at the core of our nation’s life,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux quoted Macron as saying at the weekly Cabinet meeting.
Reflecting the distrust and anger at Macron, some social media said they viewed the Strasbourg attack as a handy distraction.
Interior Ministry official Nunez said Chekatt had been radicalized in prison and had been monitored by French intelligence services since his release in late 2015, because of his suspected religious extremism.
Nunez told France-Inter that police went to his apartment in an outer neighborhood of Strasbourg on Tuesday morning. Authorities said he was not there, although five other people were detained.
Police seized a grenade, a rifle and knives in the operation, Heitz said, and began guarding the apartment building.
A neighbor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the gunman was still at large, said Chekatt was rarely home and last saw him Monday from her window, which looks out on a common hallway, with another man.
Young men from the apartment block said they knew him as someone who seemed destabilized by his time in prison.
“You can just tell,” said one, touching the side of his head. They, too, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was still on the run.
Ganley reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Angela Charlton, John Leicester and Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Kaweewit Kaewjinda in Bangkok and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed.