A gunman opened fire on a police van on the Champs-Elysées late Thursday, killing one officer and injuring two other people in an attack that came just days before the French presidential election and heightened tensions in this terrorism-weary capital.
Islamic State identified the attacker as an “Islamic State fighter” and gave a pseudonym suggesting he was from Belgium, according to its Amaq News Agency. French President Francois Hollande had earlier said the circumstances of the attack pointed to terrorism.
The gunman, carrying an automatic weapon, was shot dead by officers who returned fire as he ran off.
Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said the man had driven up the busy boulevard in a car just before 9 p.m. local time. He stopped the vehicle, jumped out and opened fire on a parked police van.
One police officer died at the scene, Brandet said. A second officer was hospitalized with “critical injuries.” A woman passerby was slightly injured by a flying shard of glass, authorities said.
The gunman continued firing at officers as he ran up the sidewalk before being gunned down by police.
“It’s too early to say why these police officers were deliberately targeted on the Champs-Elysées this evening,” Brandet said. Police are investigating whether the gunman had acted alone, he said.
There were news agency reports of a second officer dying, and a second gunman fleeing, but authorities said those were false. Although the motive was not clear, police were treating the crime as a potential act of terrorism.
The Paris anti-terrorist brigade was investigating the attack. French television reported that the gunman was “known to security services” and that officers were searching his home in the east of Paris.
“This is a serious incident,” Brandet said. “We are facing a particularly high terrorist threat in our country right now. There is a threat to target symbolic places like the Champs Elysées, cultural and tourist sites and, as we have seen, the forces of law and order.”
He said the gunman was carrying an automatic gun that he described as a “weapon of war.”
“Police are trying to secure the area and around. We don’t know the motivation [for the attack] or whether this man acted alone or had accomplices,” Brandet told journalists.
Police immediately closed the Champs-Elysées and surrounding streets and began evacuating restaurants and bars. Local subway stations were closed, and officials asked the public to keep away from the area.
Police said they found an arsenal of weapons and homemade explosives in the apartment where the two men were staying.
British intelligence had tipped off their French counterparts after reportedly intercepting an attempt by one of the suspects, Mahiedine Merabet, 29, to contact Islamic State to declare his allegiance.
An unidentified witness told BFMTV he had been on the pavement on the Champs-Elysées when the shooting started Thursday. He said he heard six shots, which he at first thought were fireworks.
“We were so close, [the gunman] could have fired at us, but thankfully the police shot him dead,” the man said.
Fekl was summoned to an emergency meeting with Hollande at the Elysées Palace. Thousands of police, gendarmes and soldiers have been patrolling streets, cities and tourist attractions across France as part of the state of emergency introduced after the wave of bombings and shootings in Paris in November 2015.
Willsher is a special correspondent.
3:30 p.m. This article has been updated with Islamic State claiming responsibility.
2:50 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting, Islamic State claiming responsibility, other details.
2:05 p.m.: This article was updated with details about a third officer wounded in the attack.
1:20 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the attack and the police investigation.
12:55 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details about the attack.
This article was originally published at 12:40 p.m.