STRASBOURG, France — A gunman who opened fire near a popular Christmas market in Strasbourg, killing three people and injuring 13 others, was on the run Wednesday as French security forces continued a massive manhunt.
More than 350 police gendarmes and soldiers supported by air units have been mobilized to find the suspect, who was already known to security services as a possible threat, police said. Two police officials have identified the suspected gunman as 29-year-old Cherif Chekatt, according to the AP.
The attack prompted France to raise its national security threat level to its highest “emergency terror attack” status, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said at a news conference.
A curfew in the eastern French city was lifted overnight but law enforcement urged everyone to remain vigilant.
Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez told Inter radio station that authorities could not confirm that the suspect had “terrorist motivations.”
Nunez added that while authorities had secured the border and set up a perimeter around Strasbourg, they are unsure if the suspect is still in France. He was known to authorities and had spent time in prison, Nunez added.
His comments come after the Paris Prosecutor’s office confirmed to CNN that its anti-terror section was in charge of the investigation into the shooting Tuesday.
Strasbourg’s famed Christmas Market is one of the oldest in Europe and draws millions of visitors each year. The suspect entered the perimeter of the market by the city’s Corbeau Bridge, and began shooting at passers-by on the Rue des Orfèvres at 8 p.m. local time, when many were in the middle of their Christmas shopping.
Anti-terror police descended on the market and attempted to apprehend the suspect, who exchanged fire with security forces on at least two occasions between 8:20 p.m. and 9 p.m. Strasbourg police confirmed that the gunman was injured in one of the exchanges. He is then believed to have jumped into a taxi and fled the scene.
Eight people were seriously wounded, Strasbourg police said Wednesday, with five others suffering from minor injuries.
Gunman was known to police
The suspected gunman, who was identified by CNN affiliate BFM as a 29-year-old male born in Strasbourg, was on a French watch list called a “Fiche S” surveillance file.
The “Fiche S” is a French terror and radicalization watch list that includes thousands of people, some of whom are under active surveillance, meaning they are on law enforcement’s radar.
The suspect was also “unfavorably known” by police authorities in France and Germany, Castaner told reporters on Wednesday, adding that he was known for non-terror related offenses.
French gendarmes had attempted to bring him in for questioning Tuesday morning before the attack but found he wasn’t home, a spokesperson for France’s National Police told CNN, without providing further details.
The interior ministry in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg confirmed Wednesday that the suspect had been convicted of break-ins and serious theft by a court in Singen in 2016 and subsequently spent time in a prison in the city of Freiburg. He was deported to France in 2017.
The German authorities cooperate closely with their French partners, a spokesman for the interior ministry said, adding that it cannot be ruled out that the suspect may have crossed the open border.
‘People running, scared, crying kids’
Issam Fares, who sells chestnuts at the Strasbourg Christmas market, told the AFP news agency he heard several shots and thought they were fireworks “or they’re attacking a store.”
“I saw a lot of people running, scared, crying kids and all. Then I said, in my opinion it must be very, very serious, and then … I saw people crying and the crowd leaving,” he told AFP. “They said it was shooting right next door, so I ran away. I went to hide in a restaurant, not far from Gutenberg Street.”
The injured were taken to a Strasbourg hospital.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted early Wednesday in solidarity with the French people. “Solidarity of the whole Nation for Strasbourg, our victims and their families,” he said.
The Christmas market will be closed Wednesday and flags will be at half-staff, Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries said on his Twitter account. All shows scheduled to be performed at the city’s cultural institutions will also be canceled on Wednesday, the mayor said.
A moment’s silence will be marked at 11 a.m. local time across the Grand Est region, said regional president Jean Rottner.
The city’s elementary, high schools and colleges will be open on Wednesday, local police said.
All rallies and demonstrations throughout the Strasbourg area were declared “forbidden” until further notice, the Prefecture of the Grand East and Lower Rhine Region said in a statement on Wednesday.
Strasbourg, a picturesque city of about 300,000 in France’s Grand Est region on the border with Germany, has previously been at the center of French counter terrorism operations. The market itself was targeted 18 years ago in a thwarted plot by al Qaeda-linked terrorists.